Growing up, I was fortunate to have direct access to the Lake Erie shoreline. My relatives shared a house in Geneva on the Lake that my great-grandparents had purchased in the 1960s. The beach was a short walk from the back door, and I grew up with what was essentially a private environmental land lab. I could explore geology, astronomy, meteorology, zoology, engineering, and other sciences for days or weeks at a time. Of course, I didn’t know a lot of those words at first. It was mostly play, exploration, and asking questions.
When I was younger, much of the trash on the shoreline seemed like treasure trove. Broken glass turned into polished fragments. My cousins and I used sand dyed purple-black by iron-ore from freighters in imaginary potions. Aluminum cans and rusty iron could be scrapped for video arcade quarters. A sand-scarred vintage Boba Fett figure was an especially great find. The beach was the perfect place for a Sarlacc pit.
Of course, there was also dangerous waste. Hat pins and razor blades sometimes washed ashore. Fishing lines and lures were snagged in trees along the crick. There also was one type of plastic I was told never to touch when I was three or four years old. These were small, pastel tubes with a bulb on one end. Years later, I realized plastic tampon applicators were on every beach within walking distance. I also noticed more and more plastic bottles and caps, and less polished glass over time.
Plastics like polyethylene may break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but aren’t truly biodegradable. The amount of plastic found in oceanic gyres, like the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has seen widespread media attention. However, freshwater bodies also contain lots of plastic trash. This stuff that floats around and litters beaches isn’t just aesthetically displeasing. Animals often mistake plastics for food. Toxic chemicals that bond with the waste accumulate in the animals’ bodies, and can travel up the food chain to humans. The chemicals can also wind up in our drinking water.
Chunks of plastic which are smaller than one millimeter in size, called microbeads, are a major concern. These are usually added to facial scrubs, body lotions, and soaps to exfoliate skin. The tiny particles that wash down our drains are too small to be filtered out at water treatment plants, and ultimately settle in our rivers and lakes. Lake Erie’s geography makes it the drainage basin for Lake Superior and Lake Huron. This means plastic waste funnels into the lake before heading to the Atlantic Ocean. Clean-up efforts are underway, but Lake Erie was found to contain the largest amount of plastic particles among the Great Lakes—over 1,000,000 pieces per square mile.
It’s possible to make a difference right now. You can buy products with alternatives to plastic microbeads. Microbead-free products that use ground nut hulls or fruit pits are available. It’s easy to make scrubs with sea salt or sugar at home, and pumice soap also works for exfoliating hands and feet.
Institutions and public policy makers also have the power to enact much bigger changes. Illinois enacted a state-wide band on plastic microbeads this June. Similar legislation has been proposed in Ohio. Manufacturers are also jumping on-board. Cincinnati-based Proctor and Gamble plans to remove all microbeads from their products by 2017.
You can also responsibly reuse or dispose of products with microbeads currently in your home. Soaps can be filtered through a strainer to collect the beads. Sherri Mason, an environmental chemist at the State University of New York, is collecting new and partially used beauty products for scientific research. The International Pellet Watch (IPW) collects samples from around the world to measure pollutant levels in bodies of water. Citizen-scientists in Cleveland collected and mailed plastic pellets from Lake Erie beaches to IPW. The results can be seen on their website.
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