In Toledo, Ohio, a device that resembles a small animal cage on pontoons with floating sausage links on either side is trapping trash on a creek that flows to Lake Erie.
In Toronto, Ont., floating garbage cans called Seabins are vacuuming up plastic bottles, cigarette butts, wrappers and other junk at marinas along Lake Ontario.
In Clayton, N.Y., fancy netted baskets called LittaTraps are catching garbage inside village storm sewers that drain runoff into the St. Lawrence River.
In each case, the devices were installed within the last couple years to reduce the amount of plastic waste reaching the Great Lakes, which are receiving an estimated 22 million pounds (10,000 metric tons) of plastic debris annually from the U.S. and Canada.
Policy advocates and pollution researchers say the well-meaning devices are innovative and useful. They are, unfortunately, necessary to stem the flow of plastic into our waters. But they are not the final solution to a problem that extends well beyond the Great Lakes region.
“The focus really needs to be upstream,” said Sherri Mason, sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend, who, while a chemistry professor at State University of New York at Fredonia, conducted some of the initial studies on microplastic in the Great Lakes.
“If you come home and you see this overflowing bathtub, what’s the first thing you’re going to do? You’re going to turn off the tap, not start cleaning it up,” Mason said. However, this “tap” is virgin plastic production, which is expected to reach 34 billion metric tons by 2050. For comparison, global plastic production passed 8 billion metric tons a few years ago.
“We’re already awash in this stuff and they want to quadruple production.”
Synthetic polymer manufacturing has changed the world. Plastics have become essential components in automobiles, electronics, construction materials, medical equipment, child safety gear, flotation devices and more in the decades since mass production began in the 1950s. Single-use plastics have become a staple of modern life and convenience culture. But the benefit comes with a cost that’s mounting with every plastic bag, bottle, wrapper, cup and Happy Meal toy that enters the ecosystem as waste.
Plastic waste is rapidly accumulating in the environment, where items can persist for centuries before fully decomposing. Even bottles or straws used only for a moment will be around long after we’re dead. Although some is incinerated and a larger percentage is recycled, most plastic ends up in landfills. There, researchers suspect it’s breaking down into microplastics that end up in the environment once contaminated leachate is processed through wastewater plants that discharge to rivers and send biosolid sludge to be spread on cropland.
What doesn’t make it to landfills tends to end up in oceans, lakes and rivers. Once it’s released into the ecosystem, weathering breaks plastics down into micro and nano particles that are entering the base of the food web and the drinking source water for millions.
Researchers like Mason say 10 to 15 percent of all plastic waste generated globally has ended up in our waters and that volume is projected to increase to the point where plastic weight will outnumber fish weight in the oceans within the next 30 years.
Increases in single-use plastic waste sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in a boost in production of disposable items in demand, such as gloves, gowns, booties, masks and other protective gear, is accelerating the problem.
In the Great Lakes region, researchers and policy advocates have been increasingly sounding the alarm as each passing study brings the problem into sharper focus.
“In some parts, especially the lower, more urbanized lakes (Lake Erie and Lake Ontario), we’re seeing concentrations of microplastics on levels almost on par with what we see in the ocean gyres,” said Mark Fisher, CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR), a binational nonprofit focused on economic development and environmental protection.
This spring, CGLR launched an effort called Circular Great Lakes, which is an attempt to partner with chemical manufacturers, packaging producers and other industries in the plastic supply chain to develop ways to boost plastic recycling and reduce pollution.
The goal, which mirrors that of global policy advocates, is to transform regional plastic production and disposal into a “circular economy” where waste is converted to raw material for new production and the need for new, or “virgin,” plastic making is reduced or eliminated. To “close the loop,” as it were, systemic overhauls are necessary in the management of waste materials — particularly in plastic recycling, which is more complex than many realize.
Fisher said there’s serious value in materials being lost to landfills and a substantial cost associated with dealing with plastic waste once it’s released to the environment. He cited a 2015 study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research that estimated the overall cost of beach cleanups, storm drain devices, street sweeping, waterway cleanup, and public anti-littering campaigns could amount to $400 million each year in the region.
“It’s a significant spend in terms of cleaning up this existing problem,” he said.
According to a market study commissioned by CGLR and performed by Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) of Ann Arbor, the commodity value of plastic being lost to landfills in the eight states and two province Great Lakes region amounts to more than $413 million.
The study, which CGLR is using to develop its circular economic strategy and has yet to be made public, found that the region is currently recovering about 18 percent of its overall plastic waste, but that amount could be increased by building new recovery facilities and upgrading existing ones, which are largely unequipped to sort the newer types of flexible plastic packaging that are making up an ever-increasing percentage of consumer recyclables.
The study found that 14 percent of regional municipal waste being landfilled, roughly 13 million tons, is made of rigid and film plastic. Plastic bottles, jars, bags and wraps made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles and plastic containers are increasing in prevalence. Bottles, cups and other cartons made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and polypropylene are also not being widely collected.
The Great Lakes region needs plastic-specific recovery facilities that can reprocess mixed bales and capture specific resin types that are in demand on the market, the study says. Also, new uses for recycled plastic could include substitution for gypsum-based building materials like roofying and drywall, wood-decking and pallets, and coke in steel-making blast furnaces.
“We need to be having much better conversations around how to capture the value of plastic we’ve already created in the economy, and we need to talk about how do we reduce our reliance on some plastics where it makes sense to do so,” Fisher said.
Beyond the Great Lakes region, policy advocates in Washington are pressuring the U.S. government to stop buying single-use products and ban their use in some settings. In July, a group of 300 groups and organizations sent Interior Dept. Secretary Deb Haaland a letter urging her to eliminate single-use bottles, bags, cups and utensils in national parks.
Democrats in Congress are also targeting plastic pollution. Comprehensive legislation called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would phase-out some single use items, require manufacturers to manage single-use container recycling, tax plastic bags and other containers, place a mortarium on new and expanded plastic production facilities and limit waste exports. The bill has no Republican support, but advocates remain hopeful it can move this session.
“It’s past time for us to step up and take national-level action,” said Christy Leavitt, plastic campaign director for the international ocean conservation nonprofit Oceana. “We’re seeing some strong interest from the public around the country on policies to reduce plastics.”
Also this year, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, introduced a bill that would prohibit discharge of resin “nurdle” pellets and other pre-production plastic into waterways. Durbin announced the bill at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, which has taken steps to reduce single-use plastics at its facility by eliminating gift shop bags and single-use tableware.
“Everybody can do a little bit,” said Andrea Densham, Shedd senior director of government affairs and conservation policy, who wants states to adopt similar approaches. “If we’re able to get states across the Great Lakes moving in the right direction, that’s important. It encourages members of Congress to move in the right direction. It’s a signal.”
Advocates like Densham are encouraged by new state-level efforts to shift the cost burden of waste disposal off taxpayers and onto manufacturers through “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) laws, such as the one passed this July in Maine, which would force producers to shoulder more of the cost to manage and recycle packaging waste.
Oregon enacted a similar bill this summer that requires plastic producers to finance stewardship organizations and bear more responsibility for packaging disposal. Similar bills are proposed in California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.
“If (manufacturers and producers) own the trash, that will feed into their thought process and the manufacture of that product,” Mason said. “As of right now, you bought the bottle. This is a problem for you the consumer to figure out.”
Sean Hammond, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said EPR laws like those passed elsewhere this year are “probably a long shot” under a Republican-controlled legislature in Michigan that, in 2016, banned local governments from banning plastic bags. Michigan does, however, already implement a type of EPR law through its 10-cent bottle deposit program. A national version of that is under consideration as part of the Break Free Act.
Such efforts are, perhaps unsurprisingly, opposed by industry.
“This legislation would be absolutely devastating to manufacturing jobs and America’s overall economy just as we begin to rebound from the effects of COVID-19,” Tony Radoszewski, Plastic Industry Association president, said in March. “This bill is a direct threat to the nearly one million men and women who work in the domestic plastics industry.”
In Michigan, the problem is being addressed largely through grant programs aimed at upgrading recycling facilities and boosting public education. Lawmakers are pondering an overhaul of the state’s solid waste laws to better emphasize recycling. Michigan’s statewide recycling rate is only about 18 percent, which is well under the national average of 34 percent.
A package of bills revising Michigan solid waste laws are wending through the Legislature with the support of state environmental groups, municipal groups, state regulators and business groups like the state Chamber of Commerce. Among other changes, the bills would require counties that operate recycling and waste facilities to better understand waste material flow within their borders and would bring recovery facilities under state authority.
John Dulmes, director of the Michigan Chemistry Council, which is supporting the legislation, said it will move the state closer to a circular economy and ensure that localities are more focused on collecting and valuing “waste” that might otherwise go into a landfill.
“Michigan has extremely cheap landfill costs, and so our residents and communities have often taken an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to waste,” Dulmes said.
Hammond said the legislative package would build recycling market development programs into state law, helping manufacturers who want to use recycled plastic connect with processors in state who can take recyclables and turn them into usable raw materials.
“That’s where we need more investment,” Hammond said.
Unfortunately, when it comes to plastic recycling, there are big caveats. In theory, plastic is a recyclable material. In practice, it’s much more complicated. Unlike glass, metal or paper, most plastics can only be recycled a few times before quality loss renders it useless.
Recycling also requires market demand. When it comes to plastic, a great deal of contamination occurs in sorting facilities where the myriad polymer types (codes 1-7) are separated into bales that are very often shipped overseas to third world countries with weak environmental laws. Many consumer items can’t be recycled because they’re made with multiple different polymer types — but they get tossed by well-meaning people into the municipal recycling bin anyhow. The more that happens, the less the resulting recycled bale is worth.
“You’ll have this bale of plastics that’s supposed to do be No. 1, a type of polyethylene. But 30 percent of that is maybe not even polyethyene,” said Mason. “What would help the recycling industry tremendously is if we just had less types of plastic.”
Mason gets skeptical at talk of industry partnerships, noting a vested interest in virgin plastic production fueled, literally, by fossil fuels. Most plastic is made from oil and natural gas. As more energy comes from clean, renewable sources over time, Mason says the petrochemical industry is banking on increases in plastic production to offset that market loss.
“The fossil fuel industry is very upfront about this,” she said. “Plastics are Plan B.”
Stopping the flow of plastic into the environment through measures like wastewater plant upgrades, stormwater capture devices, beach cleanups and recycling infrastructure improvements are well-intentioned, but she’d like to see more talk about reducing the overall production of plastic, particularly non-essential single-use items.
“We need more focus on reduction,” Mason said. “That’s hard to say to this industry.”