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Special Report: Is Lake Michigan becoming a dumping ground for plastic pollution?

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The average American throws away about 185 pounds of plastic a year, and millions of tons of it goes into the ocean. Ocean plastic pollution is well documented. Now, there's increased interest in looking at pollution in the Great Lakes.


The Problem

"Plastics in the great lakes are a huge problem," said Dr. Michael Carvan, a professor in the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

“It is less of a problem in the Great Lakes because we have smaller bodies of water, but our beaches are strewn with plastic. There’s lots of plastic floating in the middle of the lakes." 

Dr. Carvan specializes in environmental health and environmental toxicology. While there is currently no funding to involve students in his research, he spends a lot of time educating himself on the plastic problem in Lake Michigan. He's specifically concerned about plastic along the beach, and that's where most of the research has been focused so far.

“In the Great Lakes, a lot of the effort has been on census taking.” Specifically, looking at what type of trash, how much, and where the trash is along the beach. That's important because of what happens to the plastic the longer it sits in the sand or at the bottom of the lake.

"They're picking up a lot of the stuff that's in the sediments," said Dr. Carvan. "The sediments is where the nastiest toxic chemicals are. So they're absorbing these things. Then it's broken up into microplastics."

Micro plastics are tiny pieces of plastic that have degraded from larger plastic, and that poses a threat to aquatic life who often mistake it for food. 

"When the fish eat them, they go through the track very slowly, so it gives them plenty of time to absorb the nasty chemicals in the microplastics. Then that can get into the meat of the fish," which directly impacts the food chain. Humans eat the meat of the fish. 

For non-fish eaters, microplastic can impact humans in other ways. 

Major companies around the Great Lakes use the water in manufacturing. Some of the beer you drink may have microplastic in it, as found by a Minnesota study. 

There is still a lot to learn about microplastic, like where it comes from, and how it impacts what we eat and drink. Until then, researchers are encouraging people to limit plastic consumption and recycle. 


The Clean Up

Boaters have taken note of the plastic problem, including in Milwaukee. Sea Safari Sailing School has joined a national effort called "Operation Plastic Pollution Purge," to help clean up. Brian Earl owns the school, which is a member of the American Sailing Association.

“We as an ASA school teach that it’s against the law to dump anything in the lakes, in particular, plastic," said Earl. "It lasts so long. It’s so pervasive." 

It takes anywhere from 500-1,000 years for plastic to degrade, and virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form, according to the Sciences Advances Journal.

Now, sailors across the country are making it their mission to pick up the trash and encourage students to do their part to keep natural resources at their best. 

"If we see something, we'll sail by it and do a crew overboard drill, and pick up the garbage and bring it back. Often times that could be hours of drills, just because there's so much out there," said Captain Earl. 

The most common junk they find is plastic bottles, bags, and balloons. 

"Our record right now in a passage is nine Mylar balloons."



The Challenge

Until more research can be done, scientists, sailors, researchers and others are encouraging all of us to hold ourselves accountable in the plastic pollution problem. Both Captain Earl and Dr. Carvan agree, use refillable water bottles and never leave garbage at the beach. 

To learn more about plastic pollution,https://www.epa.gov/trash-free-waters   

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