Microplastics in the Great Lakes and the Huron River

Fibers, which contribute the most to our local microplastics pollution, are washed into our streams and rivers after synthetic clothes and textiles, such as fleece and athletic gear, are laundered. The fibers are so tiny they are not filtered out during the water treatment process.

What you can do

If possible, cut down on how often you wash your fleece. When you launder your synthetics, use a product designed to capture the microfibers before they rinse out with the rest of the wash water. Examples include the Cora Ball and a Guppyfriend Bag.

If you are in the market for a new washing machine, aim for a front load machine (instead of a top-load) machine: fewer fibers shed in front loading machines.

The Problem: It’s Bigger than an Ocean

New USGS microplastics studies of the Great Lakes have shown that the Huron River has the highest levels of microplastics among 29 Great Lakes tributaries sampled.

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, and are intentionally manufactured into some toothpastes and lotions. Scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere, particularly in lakes, rivers, and aquatic animals.

Where are they coming from?

Sources of microplastics in our Great Lakes tributaries (USGS findings)

Type of Microplastic pollution Percentage of the total number of microplastics particles found in samples of river water Source of microplastic
Fibers 70% synthetic textiles, diapers, cigarettes
Fragments 16.7% water bottles
Foams 7.6% styrofoam
Films 3.3% bags and wrappers
Beads 1.67%

More Information and Resources

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

Microplastics can be harmful to humans, as well as wildlife through (Source: U.S. Geological Survey):

  • 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)

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


HRWC’s Ric Lawson juggles Cora Balls at the A2 Summer Festival to help get the word out about this issue.

Special thanks to the Ann Arbor Community Foundation for funding this project.