If you think of huge floating islands of plastic waste in oceans when you think of plastic pollution, you are correct.  The oceans host vast amounts of plastic waste that breaks down in water and harms aquatic life. It also breaks down in our rivers and lakes, polluting our home waters far from any ocean. There is plastic in the Huron River, both pieces that are big enough to be seen and pieces so small that you need a microscope to see them.  These tiny pieces are called microplastics.

About Microplastics

Mallets Creek Huron River sample showing microplastic pollution
Sample from Mallets Creek (2018) showing microplastics

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters mostly invisible to the naked eye.  Microplastics are the miniscule plastic fragments (smaller than 0.04 inch) that fall off of decomposing plastic bottles and bags, slough off of articles of clothing when they are being washed, and are intentionally manufactured into some toothpastes and lotions. Scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere, particularly in lakes, rivers, and aquatic animals. (source USGS)

Microplastics pollution is a local issue for our waters too

The USGS studied microplastics in 29 Great Lakes tributaries and found that the highest levels of microplastics are in the Huron River. The study identified these sources for the Great Lakes tributaries:

Fibers                  70% synthetic textiles, diapers, cigarettes

Fragments          16.7% water bottles

Foams                   7.6% styrofoam

Films                      3.3 % bags and wrappers

Beads                    1.67%

Impacts

Microplastics can be harmful to humans, as well as wildlife through:

  • The physical hazards of ingesting plastic particles (fish, birds, and other animals can experience digestive obstruction, impaired reproduction, other adverse biological effects, and even death)
  • The unhealthy additives found in plastic particles (some additives have been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption)
  • The contaminants that accumulate on plastic particles (polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s), organochlorine pesticides, trace metals, and even pathogens have been found at high concentrations on microplastics)

(source: USGS)

HRWC’s Microplastics Project

Studying microplastic pollution is a newer field of study and we do not have a lot of data on how prevalent this pollution is in our local creeks, river, and lakes.  We have created a net to capture the fine fragments (picture above) and will attempt to find out where the more concentrated areas reside.  We are also getting the word out about this problem through our Catch the Plastic campaign >>

More Information and Resources

“Swimming in Plastic, Microplastics are found throughout the Huron River”(pdf) HRWC Newsletter article

More on microplastics from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) site and their Microplastics Expert Workshop Report (pdf)