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Environmental group warns that microplastics are irreversibly polluting the Great Lakes

Single-use bags are a large source of plastic pollution.

A Northern Michigan environmental group is warning against the prevalence of microplastics in the Great Lakes, encouraging state leaders to take action before it’s too late.

On average, humans ingest between .1 and 5 grams of plastic per week through food, air and water, according to the Medical University of Vienna.

The event was hosted by the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, an advocacy group stationed in Traverse City. The group previously warned against claims that Michigan could serve as a “climate haven,” saying an increasingly erratic climate would still negatively impact the state.


Microplastics are a type of pollution created by the breakdown of plastic materials. Some smaller types of microplastics — nanoplastics — are small enough to enter human cells.

Art Hirsch, a former environmental engineering consultant turned activist, presented data and issued warnings about the amount of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

“There’s really no aggressive strategy that’s being instituted by the state of Michigan or EGLE in regards to taking a real proactive management approach to protect water quality,” he said.

According to the Rochester Institute of Technology, around 22 million pounds of plastic pollution enters the Great Lakes each year. Hirsch presented data from the University of Michigan showing that plastic recycling is remaining nearly stagnant, while the amount going into landfills continues to increase.


Some of the largest consumer-facing contributors to microplastic pollution — other than single use plastic packaging — include tires, synthetic textiles and fast fashion. Commercial sources of microplastics include polystyrene foam and agricultural runoff, while particles from landfills can also leak into bodies of water through wind and groundwater filtration.

Hirsch also highlighted “nurdles,” a small raw material used in the production of plastic goods. Nurdles are found on 70% of Great Lake shores, he said.

Better filtering of agricultural and stormwater runoff can help greatly reduce the amount of large microplastics entering waterways, Hirsch said. However, a large portion of the damage is irreversible, he said.

“Microplastics, just because of the sheer size and number and the volume of water that’s polluted — it’s just impossible to remediate,” Hirsch said. But he encouraged actions on individual and collective levels to reduce the amount of future microplastic pollution.


Hirsch suggested consumers cut down on single-use plastics and invest in clothing made from natural fibers — though Hirsch acknowledged that plastic products are nearly impossible to avoid in everyday life in the 21st century.

“It’s really impossible to avoid it in many respects — just try to reduce the concentration that you take in,” he said.

Hirsch encouraged those concerned about microplastics in the Great Lakes to contact their state and federal lawmakers to support legislation against pollution and littering in the region. Hirsch recently founded the Michigan Microplastics Coalition, an advocacy group that lobbies for microplastic regulation.

Hirsch said he was working with Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, and Sen. Sue Shink. D-Northfield Twp., on legislation that would develop a statewide plan for microplastic reduction, monitoring microplastic presence in drinking water and installing more robust water filtration systems.

“The Great Lakes are really held in trust of the people of Michigan,” he said. “It’s really the Michigan state government’s responsibility to preserve and protect and sustain this vital resource we know as the Great Lakes.”

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