Microplastics threaten Great Lakes

Posted: Friday, April 7, 2017

Microplastics threaten Great Lakes but people who love their lakes are motivated, taking positive actions: Jennifer Pate

Geographer, filmmaker, and Great Lakes sampling project co-leader Jennifer Pate provides warning about harmful microplastics but offers examples of people stepping forward to clean up Great Lakes

Harmful plastic pollution can be denser in the Great Lakes than in oceans.

"Plastic debris of many sizes, including microplastics, have been found in surface waters as well as sediments of all of the Great Lakes, comprising quantities at least as elevated as in high concentration areas (gyres) of the oceans," according to a presentation by Hans Dürr, of the University of Waterloo, as cited in the Microplastics in the Great Lakes Workshop Final Report of September, 14 2016 by the International Joint Commission of Canada and United States.

There is a pressing need to reduce plastic use and prevent tiny, harmful plastic fibres from reaching our lakes and oceans.

Bayfield's Jennifer Pate is a geographer, filmmaker and co-leader of microplastics sampling projects in the Caribbean and the Great Lakes. As a guest speaker, she brings a message to Love Your Greats in a different kind of love story. She shares the love that people have for their Great Lakes and how that connection to their lake is fueling their efforts to make positive changes. "When you invite them (to help), when you tap into that love (of the Great Lakes), amazing things start to happen," Pate said as keynote speaker at an annual Conservation Awards event, hosted by Ausable Bayfield Conservation and held at Ironwood Golf Club east of Exeter..

The presenter offers two sides to the story of plastic pollution and the Great Lakes. One side is a scary one with data about the threat to our health and our water from plastics, microplastics, microfibres, and nanoplastics. The other, more positive side of the talk shows examples of community and individual efforts to address the problem. There have been positive recent developments in policy to address plastic contamination, the presenter said, including a scheduled plan to ban some microbeads in Canada, to take effect in 2018. Local people have been engaged also in water sampling, shoreline cleanup, and making changes as consumers such as stopping use of disposable plastic water bottles.

Pate sailed 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean in November of 2014, from Lanzarote to Martinique, as a filmmaker with an all-woman team called eXXpedition. "I had never sailed before," she said. "I jumped at the chance." The opportunity to sail an ocean may have enticed her to join the expedition but her interest soon changed to the environmental and health threats posed by plastic in its many forms. "I was shocked," Pate said. "I was ashamed I didn't know this problem existed." The speaker shows a crowd a photo of an island of plastic litter in an ocean and asks the attendees where the photo had been taken. It surprises the people at the event to find out the photo was from Los Angeles.

Gyres are large, round, swirling ocean surface currents that can lead to the collection of pollution in a defined area. The force of the Coriolis Effect causes currents to circulate in the ocean and these Gyre systems can lead to islands of litter and plastics. Pate said, however, that plastic doesn't exist out in the oceans the way we may think it does. Water may look clear and blue but still be filled with tiny, toxic pieces of plastic that can't be seen with the naked eye. "We don't just see a plastic water bottle floating by," she said. "The majority of the plastic that's out there is microplastic, five millimetres in diameter or smaller, and in most cases it is completely invisible to the naked eye." Plastic may get broken down into smaller and smaller pieces but that plastic doesn't disappear, according to Pate. "When I first started working on this (problem of plastics in our water) nobody was talking about it," she recalled. The speaker had always had a personal connection with the Great Lakes but the ocean expeditions fostered her love of the oceans as well. "This trip was a complete shift change not only in my career but how I live my life."

Aboard the ship, the team members studied the plastics they were sampling from the ocean through bucket grabs. "As we started to look down the microscope on board ... we realized it's not just these microplastics, five millimetres in diameter or smaller," Pate recalled. "We actually have nanoplastics now, completely invisible to the naked eye, only visible under the microscope, and these are things that are one millimetre in diameter or smaller."

The presence of plastic particles in oceans and lakes threatens aquatic health and human health. The presence of plastic isn't the only reason to be concerned. There is also concern about the toxins attached to the plastic. Plastics act as "sponges" for toxins. There is the threat posed by tiny microbeads in detergents, cosmetics, and toiletries. There is also an increasing focus on microfibres from clothing. "What we're realizing now – this is really the unseen plastic product that's a huge threat to our waterways and our health," according to Pate.

Just one load of wash of polyester clothes can release hundreds of thousands of microscopic plastic fibres into the environment. This tiny plastic pollution doesn't just affect fish, who can't tell the difference between what's poison and what's food, but it also shows up as harmful toxins in humans. "We are not separate from our environment," the speaker said. "Human and environmental health are intrinsically linked and what we put out we get back."

Plastic pollution in the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and other oceans is a serious threat. The density of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes is as high or higher than that found in oceans. "We actually have a higher density of microplastics here in the Great Lakes than in any of the ocean Gyres," the presenter said.

Pate has co-led eXXpedition Caribbean (conducting the first-ever sampling for microplastics in the Caribbean Sea) and also co-led eXXpedition Great Lakes (the world's largest simultaneous sampling for microplastics in history). These and other expeditions opened her eyes to the problems posed by plastic products and the resulting tiny, harmful microplastics (five millimetres in diameter or smaller and often invisible to the naked eye) and microfibers and nanoplastics that end up in lakes and oceans. "Protecting the planet for the future demands exceptional leadership and I believe that we have it if we work together and support each other," Pate said. "I encourage you all to recognize yourselves as change makers because each and every one of us has a sphere of influence." As a consumer, you can drive positive change, she said: "You can vote with your voice, you can vote with your ballot, and you can also vote with your wallet – don't underestimate the power of yourself as a consumer to drive change."

Pate has a BA in Geography and an MSc in Environment, Science and Society (Distinction) from the University College of London. She was Project and Events Officer for the UK Energy Research Centre in the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford before moving back to Canada.

Pate has extensive international public speaking experience, appearing at seminar series, film premières, and has delivered TEDx talks about being a Glocal, inspired by her home town and its initiative with the Council of Canadians: Blue Community Bayfield. The filmmaker's 40-minute documentary: eXXpedition: Making the Unseen Seen, was premiered at the Royal Geographical Society in London (UK) in March 2015 as the finale of a wider event in celebration of women in exploration and field science. "While film is powerful it is only one way to tell a story," she told the attendees. That is one of the reasons she has increasingly focused on projects that are "inviting everybody who's taking part to tell their story as well."

The speaker commended the actions taken by local people on local and global issues in Bayfield, Huron County, other Ausable Bayfield watershed communities, and beyond.

The eXXpedition Great Lakes event in August of 2016 was billed as "the world's largest simultaneous sampling for microplastics in history." There were more than 1,000 people who took part across the Great Lakes. "I think this shows the power of community and the power and willingness of people to take part," the speaker said. The community began taking action, whether as groups in the hundreds, or a mother and her children, or a single individual. They did shoreline cleanups, they took water samples, and "above all they started to talk to one another." "People want to feel a part of something and they want to be able to see others especially in this society we live in now where we're so ‘connected' yet disconnected," said Pate. "There are people around you who feel the same way and there is power in numbers."

The speaker recounted how people responded when there was a call to help. Word of mouth started to spread and people started to sign up, said Pate. "We sent out a call to action and said to anybody who wants to take part: it doesn't matter where you are, or how you want to take part, if you want to take water samples, if you want to do shoreline cleanup, or maybe you want to do a community plastic-free barbecue." She said "we didn't tell them what to do but people had such great ideas."

The microplastics sampling project was an "overwhelming" example of how people responded to an invitation to help and benefitted from meeting other people and no longer feeling like they were fighting alone. "It was really amazing," the presenter said. "It snowballed into something I didn't expect … they needed to see one another, they needed to see that other people were willing to act."

Facing the challenge of fighting global issues with local action, people sometimes feel alone. "Very quickly I realized that people want to act. They want to do things. They want to be part of creating a healthier future, they just don't know how," she said. The Great Lakes sampling and citizen science event allowed people "the flexibility to do what's meaningful to them."

The presenter urges people to make positive changes in their ‘backyard,' whether that backyard is the Atlantic Ocean, Lake Huron, or a pond or creek. She invites people to "think blue" as well as thinking green. Canada has Great Lakes to protect and the country also has the shorelines of three oceans to think about and to protect.

Mari Veliz, Healthy Watersheds Supervisor with Ausable Bayfield Conservation, thanked the speaker for her hopeful message of identifying opportunities that translate people's love of the Great Lakes into grassroots community initiatives that make positive changes. She thanked the speaker for her energy and for being "extremely inspiring" and reminding people of the power of a community to make a difference.

Children and adults can protect the health of people and birds and aquatic animals by using less plastic and fewer reusable containers. Instead of using plastic bags, plastic wrap, or paper bags, students can carry a reusable lunch carrier and reusable containers. They can say ‘No' to single-use juice boxes or cans and switch to a vacuum flask (such as Thermos-brand bottles).

To learn more about the Love Your Greats initiative visit loveyourgreats.com.

To learn more about Jen Pate and her work visit jenniferpate.com.