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November 13, 2013     Post 42
plastic in lake follow up

Last June I mentioned Sara B's 'mission' of collecting plastic surface trash with a neuston net during her summer cruise around the lake. Here's a bit more on the topic.

photo by Emma Netterman

I last wrote about Project “Kaisai”, the little Japanese brigantine that we found languishing in San Diego. An energetic woman named Mary Crowley subsequently put her to work studying plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean “garbage patch”. Recently Ms. Crowley made the back page 'making a difference' feature in the Christian Science Monitor. The Internet suggests that she still has Kaisai hard at work raising awareness of and adding knowledge to the problem.

Kaisai certainly made me aware of the garbage patch. So when plastic pollution in the Great Lakes hit the headlines last year I promptly volunteered "Sara B's" services and Dr. Mason forwarded a neuston net, sampling protocol , and a box of bottles. Sara B had a 'mission' for her June cruise around Lake Ontario. She subsequently took and I delivered eight samples to supplement samples Dr. Mason collected a few weeks later between Montreal and the lake's end.

Each tow lasted a half hour with start and end GPS positions noted down. Most of the samples were done under power, though a couple were done under sail. Chris worked out a technique using the boat hook as an outrigger to keep the neuston net out away from the boat and her bow wave turbulence. We tried not always successfully to tow at two knots. (Under sail we could do this but under power we averaged closer to three). Tows were for a half hour followed by about another half hour of wash down and sample transfer.

We certainly did see some plastic. We also saw woody detritus, lots of cottonwood fluff, insects and insect pupa cases, and a brownish sort of slime which I suspect was some form of one celled algae or diatoms smaller than the .333 mm mesh we used. “Micro plastic” particles are less than 5 mm in diameter and so not readily observed when mixed up in a wad of cottonwood fluff or insect remains.

We sampled right off the Niagara River on the way to Hamilton where surface current mapping suggested a gyre or current convergence of sorts often forms, sampled off Toronto (where we saw LOTS of big pieces of plastic), and also did a sample off our mooring at Youngstown Yacht Club in the Niagara River just for the heckuvit. After all this was water straight from Lake Erie as a comparison to our Ontario samples.

The issue of plastic in our oceans and lakes is an excellent way to call attention to the need to reduce the solid waste stream which has many far reaching impacts on the environment and on human and ecosystem health. One way to do this is to minimize single use plastic. No straw in your drinking water. Take your bag to the store. Seek out biodegradable packaging. And support Unilever soap (see below).

Dr. Mason's work is supported in part by the Burning River Foundation and by the Five Gyres Institute which has campaigned with some success to reduce microplastics in our drinking water. Some of the pollution consists of microbeads, little plastic spheres that are an ingredient in body soaps. Supposedly these little plastic spheres 'exfoliate' the bather's skin. Then they go down the drain and into the sewer and the lake. Yuk! Thanks in part to efforts by activists and sympathetic soap buying consumers, Unilever has already pledged to substitute a biodegradable equivalent to the plastic beads.

Unfortunately, for the zooplankters fish humans and birds who make up the Lake Ontario food chain, The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents publicly owned sewage treatment plants classifies the tiny plastic balls as an “emerging contaminant”. Emerging contaminants are materials like pharmaceutical drugs and microbeads entering waste water that sewage treatment facilities are not designed to remove or break down. Plastic beads do not flocculate very well during the treatment process. Are we drinking them? Hopefully not.

But certainly the critters in the lake, some of which we eat are eating them! One lab study back in 1985 found that when copepods were fed a mixture of one celled algae and small beads, they did ingest some of the beads. What if any effect the plastic had on their well being was not studied. But other sampling at sea has shown plastic of various sorts and sizes are being eaten by fish, birds, turtles ,and marine mammals.

Not too long ago on one of our winter trips to San Diego we heard of a dolphin found dead on the beach with its system clogged by a potato chip bag. And the haunting photos by Chris Jordan of dead albatross chicks with their digestive system totally crammed with plastic are enough to make anyone head for the blue bin with that last bit of stupid packaging that just came in the mail. Here's the link if you dare take a look. It's gruesomely fascinating to try to identify the stuff in them.

Chris Jordan website

To learn more how you can reduce plastic crap in the ocean and in the Great Lakes visit the Five Gyres Institute website

www.5gyres.org or Google 'plastic soup foundation' and their 'beat the microbead' campaign to eliminate this absurd needless pollution of our sweet water seas. Some efforts are underway in Europe to regulate the junk out of existence. But bad P R directed at the soap makers can probably do the job a lot quicker.

Beat the Microbead has a website and a smart phone app ( to tell you if that soap you are buying has plastic microbeads in it). Visit their website here

beat the bead website

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