The Great Lakes’ plastic problem, and how we can clean up the beaches

Volunteers regularly clean up Euclid Beach and the streets around it, to keep plastics out of Lake Erie. (Euclid Beach Adopt-a-Beach)

Cleveland – along with its Lake Erie neighbor, Detroit — ranks near the top for plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Together, the United States and Canada discard 22 million pounds of plastic into Great Lakes waters, according to a Rochester Institute of Technology study. Much of it — including fast-food straws, cigar tips and plastic bottle caps — comes flushed from streets, through storm drains and into the lake. Then it washes up on shore, making up about 80 percent of the litter on beaches.

Lake Michigan has the most marine debris, with 11 million pounds. Lake Erie is second, with about 5.5.

Plastics are carried by winds and currents toward shore — usually on the east and southern coasts of each lake.

“Most of the particles from Chicago and Milwaukee end up accumulating on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, while the particles from Detroit and Cleveland end up along the southern coast of the eastern basin of Lake Erie,” Matthew Hoffman, RIT assistant professor and lead author of the plastic study, told EcoWatch in 2016. Hoffman explained. “Particles released from Toronto appear to accumulate on the southern coast of Lake Ontario, including around Rochester and Sodus Bay.”

Plastics don’t break down on their journey through the lakes. Instead, they become smaller and smaller, until each piece is less than 5 mm, which classifies as microplastic. Fish can be harmed by eating microplastics.

Which is why Drink Local. Drink Tap., a Cleveland non-profit, organizes regular beach clean-ups and since 2015 has picked up more than 5,000 pounds of trash.

“Every time it rains, whatever happens in your neighborhood goes into our drinking water,”  said organization CEO Erin Huber.

Drink Local. Drink Tap. and other environmentalists want to reduce the number of plastic bags, plastic bottles, straws and cigar tips that end up in the lakes (and water everywhere) by encouraging people to use reusable bags and bottles, skip the straws and properly dispose of cigars. The city of Cleveland plans to launch a social media campaign to cut down on plastic pollution.

In England, the Anglican Church urged members to take the Lent Plastics Challenge and reduce use of straws, cups, bottles and other plastic products.

“We’re trying to change the beginning of the stream, not the end of the stream,” Huber said. “We don’t want to be doing this forever. We want to be put out of a job.”

Until then, volunteers collected 79,941 items off Cleveland public beaches in 2016, which added up to 1,594 pounds of litter. More than 90 percent of them were partially, or completely composed of plastic. 

See the full list of the gross stuff they found.

Euclid is facing off against Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood in the annual Big Clean on April 21, a Saturday dedicated to picking up trash out of the neighborhoods, and keeping it out of our Great Lake. 

People who gather for beach clean-ups all leave happy, Huber said. They can see the work they’ve done.

“You don’t want to feel hopeless in the face of big problems in the world.”

Here’s the 2018 Drink Local. Drink Tap. clean-up schedule:

Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, 10 a.m.-noon
Main Beach at Edgewater Park

Sunday, May 12, 10 a.m.-noon
Perkins Beach (entrance at upper Edgewater Park)

Tuesday, June 12, Happy Hour, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Followed by an after-party with Barefoot Wine and Bubbly at 6 p.m. for volunteers 21 and older
Main Beach at Edgewater Park

Saturday, July 14, 10 a.m.-noon
Perkins Beach (entrance at upper Edgewater Park)

Sunday, August 5, 10 a.m.-noon
Main Beach at Edgewater Park in Cleveland, Ohio

Wednesday, August 22, Happy Hour, 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
Followed by an after-party with Barefoot Wine and Bubbly at 6 p.m. for volunteers 21 and older
Main Beach at Edgewater Park

Saturday, Sept. 1, 10:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m.
Main Beach – Edgewater Park

Here’s the Euclid Beach Adopt-a-Beach schedule:

May 19, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Sept. 15, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

 

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