Could there soon be a "Great Lakes Garbage Patch?"
Researchers say the Great Lakes are becoming polluted with the same plastic particles that have created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—an area of trash in the Pacific Ocean that's twice the size of Texas.
Researchers say that Lake Erie has up to 1.7 million tiny plastic particles per square mile, which is a greater density than some parts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. By definition, these so-called "microplastics" have a diameter of less than 5 millimeters and are generally tough to see in the water.
Lorena Rios, who discussed microplastics in the Great Lakes at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in New Orleans, says that though the particles are tough to see, they can still wreak havoc on the environment. Some researchers have suggested that plastics account for up to 80 percent of all ocean pollution.
"Fish are eating the plastic because it mimics food," she says. "In the Pacific, if you're collecting plastic you can find it with a net—you can catch the plastic but you can't see it because most of it is tiny, clear or blue. It's the same in Lake Erie."
Rios says that preliminary research in Lake Superior and Huron have turned up "big fragments of plastic" but less microplastic, which breaks down from larger fragments. She is continuing to study the other Great Lakes, but says that Erie's size and location make it a logical place to start. She plans on taking water samples from the lake for study.
"The logical thing is, the higher the population, the more you can find plastic, because people are the source," she says. The greatest concentrations of microplastics have been found closest to the shoreline. "Lake Erie is a small and shallow lake, while Superior is huge and much deeper."