Impacts of Plastic
Plastic pollution leaves a lasting effect in our major water sources. Millions of pounds of plastic waste enter the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater ecosystem, and this number increases every year. The excessive plastic pollution in the Great Lakes impacts the aquatic ecosystem and has potential to affect the health of humans. Research on freshwater lakes is fairly new and uses the same approach as studying plastic in the oceans. Alternatives for plastic and updating wastewater treatment plants in the U.S. and Canada are essential in reducing the large amount of plastic waste that humans create in our freshwater lakes.
An estimated 8 trillion micro-beads enter our waterways each day and these toxic plastics find their way into our food and water supply as well as affecting the ecosystem.
The Great Lakes may have been filled with plastic debris since the mid twentieth century with the boom of plastic production. The increasing production of plastic is making it harder to find a solution in resolving the pollution in these lakes. The main sources of plastic pollution come from shoreline and recreational activities, and smoking-related debris in all five of the Great Lakes. In the surface waters of Lake Superior, Huron, and Erie, micro-plastic debris have high abundances due to consumer care products like face wash, body scrubs, toothpaste, etc.
Plastic accumulation in the Great Lakes is detrimental to the ecosystem. This body of water is a large drinking source that millions of people rely on. Not only are humans affected by this pollution, but the wildlife and environment are disturbed. Many studies show how plastic has affected marine animals and this mirrors the effects of plastic with freshwater fish. Freshwater lake studies are fairly new, but there is a correlation in similar effects on wildlife. The effects on wildlife raises concerns of plastic making its way up the food chain and harming humans. Micro-plastics can potentially harm humans by transporting toxic chemicals that leach out during their degradation in water. The use of plasticizers, also known as phthalates that increase elasticity of a material, dates back to the 1920’s and studies show the effects this type of solvent effects wildlife.
Reproductive and development changes were found in a wide range of wildlife animals. Species included mollusks, crustaceans, and amphibians that had higher adverse effects compared to fish. Plastic has been found in many marine organisms, which ultimately is the main cause of their deaths. Fish have been found with stomachs full of micro-beads and these fish may consume these plastics unintentionally thinking it is food. In one study, fish exposed to plastic treatments showed stress in their livers from ingestion. Research has shown that plastic can make its way up the food chain with the potential of affecting human health. There is concern that plastic can be used as a transporter of bacteria and other diseases.
Since plastic is durable, it can travel far and carry invasive species to new lands. Another study saw a high abundance of microplastics and microplastics that carried bacteria in an urbanized in Chicago, Illinois river. Rivers play a role in transporting plastic pollution downstream to other bodies of water or may even retain the pollutants.
The demand for plastic production is on the rise to keep up with the exponentially growing human population. With many issues that come with sustaining a growing population, freshwater lakes must be protected from plastic pollution as a human resource. Freshwater lakes around the world must be conserved as well as the ecosystems surrounding these lakes. It is important to address this issue before any more damage is done instead of rushing to aid a problem that is too late to fix down the road. Awareness from many studies with plastic pollution has brought new innovations and alternatives to plastic usages. Some personal care products use natural alternatives such as jojoba beads, walnut shells, and bamboo. These alternatives are just as effective and biodegradable. Plastic has been helpful for humans, but many alternatives are out there that can replace this product and bring less harm to the planet.
We must consider the harmful effects of plastic debris in freshwater lakes and continue research in these areas. Degradation of plastic will take many years and that will be too late to see how detrimental the chemicals leaching out from these plastics will impact the ecosystem. The potential harm that can come from a contaminated source of drinking water for humans is motivation in taking action.
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Andrew P. Mann, Co-Founder