Sherri Mason’s students inevitably experience a bit of a letdown when they pull up a wide net from the waters of Lake Erie.
They’re there to find junk – plastic products polluting the waters. Instead, they mostly see plankton and plants, and maybe a few fish flopping around.
“You pull in these nets, and they look and they kind of get a little disappointed,” Mason said. “They’re like, ‘Wait, I was expecting to see plastic.’ ”
As it turns out, it’s much, much worse than it looks.
“The plastic is so enmeshed that it’s not until we’ve pulled all that living debris away that you actually see the plastic,” Mason said.
Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at SUNY Fredonia, and her students had a hand in startling research that those tiny beads in hand soaps and body washes are gunking up the lakes.
Those bits of plastic suspended in your juicy exfoliating scrub don’t just wash down the drain and disappear. They’re slipping right past the sewage plants and into the very same waters we’re pinning this region’s future on.
For something as trivial as a body wash, those microbeads are doing a lot of damage. Mason and her students, working with lead researcher 5 Gyres Institute, found concentrations of micro-plastics in Lake Erie that rivaled what’s been found in some of the most contaminated waters.
But what happened after the research came out was almost as astonishing as the amount of plastic they found. Unilever said it would phase out plastic beads by 2015. L’Oreal pledged to dump the beads by 2017, and lawmakers have proposed legislation to ban them.
The announcements, prompted by a campaign by the 5 Gyres Institute, were surprising because we’ve become adept at ignoring ecological problems at our own peril.
We’ve become almost numb to the damage that has been done to Lake Erie. Raw sewage bubbles into the water when it rains. Coal ash floats in the water. Bags swirl in the waves, yet we continue to stuff our plastic-wrapped groceries into one-time-use bags.
Anyone who’s been to a shore cleanup knows what a beating the waters take from litter. All sorts of unsightly trash washes up – plastic bottles, bits of Styrofoam, beer cans.
But it’s the plastic that you can hardly see that might be doing even more harm. Most of the plastics that Mason and her students found in the waters of the Great Lakes were tiny particles no bigger than the tip of a pen, and those are so enmeshed, she said, that you can’t just clean them up without damaging living creatures.
Kudos to the cosmetic companies for agreeing to drop the beads. It’s a great first step. But we’re going to have to make bigger changes to address the plastic threat to the world’s waters.
The plastics aren’t just coming from those trendy soap microbeads. There are also bits of plastic that have broken down over time, Mason said.
“The next step, of course, is getting people to realize that all these plastic fragments that we’re finding are coming from other plastic items,” Mason said. “That plastic bag that you see blowing in the wind or that plastic bottle that you see lying on the side of the road, and all those fragments turn into smaller and smaller pieces.”
In other words, the plastic litter in Lake Erie is a whole lot worse than what you see.
But it’s the plastic that you can hardly see that might be doing even more harm.