New research suggests that the growing intensity and scale of plastic pollution in the Great Lake poses serious risks to human health and will continue to have profound consequences on the ecosystem.

In an article published in the Journal of Waste Resources and Recycling, Gail Krantzberg, a professor at McMaster University, argued that while plastic waste in the oceans has generated widespread global attention, few realize the problem is also getting much worse closer to home.

“We are increasingly detecting microplastics in the waters and fish and wildlife in the Great Lakes,” Krantzberg said. “A fish with a gut full of plastics cannot be a healthy fish and can, in fact, starve to death.  We know this problem is increasing in severity.”

Microplastics, which are typically less than 5 mm in size, are found in textiles, medicines, and personal care products such as facial scrubs, toothpastes, and cleansers.

Significant concentrations of microplastics have found their way into the Great Lakes and surrounding watersheds for several reasons—dense urban populations that produce more plastic litter, increasingly severe storms that overwhelm municipal water treatment facilities sending runoff into the ecosystem, and the failure of recycling efforts.

Much of what we believe we are recycling actually ends up in the landfill and flies away into our streams, rivers, and lakes, explained Krantzberg.

Some studies have found that plastic debris can travel up to 100 kilometres in the atmosphere, possibly further, and accumulates in large quantities along shorelines, beaches, and in open freshwater and marine environments.

“It is hard to conceive of recapturing all the plastics that are now in the lakes, but we can make a difference by eliminating many unnecessary plastics from use such as plastic straws, cutlery, bags, and other disposable waste,” Krantzberg said.

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By some estimates, the overall economic impact of plastics to marine ecosystems is expected to reach $13-billion USD per year.

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