Microplastics Impacts

While plastic pollution is a major threat to oceans, there is growing awareness that tiny fragments of plastic are getting into so much more - from our tap water, to our agricultural soils, and certainly into the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay. As plastic use continues to intensify, and plastic litter assaults our enjoyment of natural landscapes, shorelines and water - there are enormous unknowns about the impacts of so many tiny fragments of plastics on the environment - including the food chain and animal and human health. With your support, Georgian Bay Forever will continue to work and partner to find answers and solutions to mitigate microplastic pollution in Georgian Bay.

[Updates added in December, 2020]

How much plastic is out there?

*An excerpt from Lisa Erdle's article in Georgian Bay Forever's Winter 2018 issue. Lisa Erdle is a PhD student in the Rochman Lab at the University of Toronto.

The influx of plastic into the Great Lakes likely began over half a century ago, when industrial plastic production took off. Now, showing no signs of slowing down, annual plastic production has reached around 300 million metric tons after having doubled in the last 15 years. It is estimated that 60% of all plastics ever produced have either been diverted to landfills or accumulated in the environment. Many of these are microplastics, derived from plastic debris breaking down into small fragments or entering the environment as microscopic particles.

Microplastics Great Lakes

Measuring how many pieces of plastic are in the environment is not an easy task. To quantify floating plastic, I have towed fine-mesh nets aboard research vessels and boats conducting citizen science, such as the youth training tall ships of Toronto Brigantine. Quantifying the number of microplastics can be time consuming – particles are individually separated, sorted, and counted.

While information on microplastics in the Great Lakes is limited compared to marine environments like the ocean gyres, a study on three of the Great Lakes (Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie) showed the average abundance in surface water was approximately 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometer. In 2014, surface water was sampled in Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the rivers that feed into them. Recorded abundances of microplastics were between 90,000 and 6.7 million particles per square kilometer. These levels of microplastics are similar to and even exceed concentrations found in ocean gyres like the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

The kinds of microplastics found in these studies — largely fibers, fragments and spheres — are distinct, and tell a story of the people that inhabit the Great Lakes Basin.

Microfibres in the Great Lakes Basin

*An excerpt from Lisa Erdle's article in Georgian Bay Forever's Winter 2018 issue. Lisa Erdle is a PhD student in the Rochman Lab at the University of Toronto.

Microplastics Great Lakes

Microfibres (ers) are some of the most common microplastics in the Great Lakes. Derived from synthetic textiles (e.g. polyester, acrylic, polypropylene, polyamide and polyethylene), microfibers may enter the environment in many ways.

One known pathway is shedding from clothing, with studies on synthetic textiles showing that some articles can shed 100,000 microfibers in a single wash. While wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) may capture up to 90% of microfibers entering these facilities, a recent study in the United States showed that a single WWTP can discharge up to 5 million microplastic particles per day, even when serving catchment areas of around 100,000 people.

And with approximately 34 million people living in the Great Lakes Basin, the total load of microfibers entering natural waterways is substantial.

What are the effects?

*An excerpt from Lisa Erdle's article in Georgian Bay Forever's Winter 2018 issue. Lisa Erdle is a PhD student in the Rochman Lab at the University of Toronto.

Given their ubiquity and small dimensions, the ingestion and impacts of microplastics are cause for concern. Over 220 species have been recorded as ingesting microplastics and include species ranging from microscopic, e.g., zooplankton, to megafauna, e.g., humpback whales. Microplastics also accumulate in food chains and reach humans through seafood consumption, e.g., mussels, fish and oysters.

Effects of microplastics are far-reaching. Researchers have investigated the impacts of microplastics on gene expression, individual cells, survival, and reproduction. Mounting evidence shows that negative impacts can include decreased feeding and growth, endocrine disruption, decreased fertility, as well as other lethal and sub-lethal effects. While some effects are due to ingestion stress, e.g., physical blockage, many risks to ecosystems are associated with the chemicals in plastic, either added to plastic as ingredients in production or absorbed from “chemical cocktails” in the surrounding environment.

Studies have shown that chemicals transfer to fish when they consume microplastics. When these fish end up on our dinner plates, we have the potential to increase the burden of hazardous chemicals in our bodies. However, it is unclear how microfibers may uniquely contribute to these contaminant burdens, since microfibers are often associated with distinct mixtures of chemicals used to manufacture fibers and clothing.

In April 2017, CBC's Quirks and Quarks talked about about how microplastics could end up in our food, based on a recent German study of compost and an interview with Dr. Chelsea Rochman, from the University of Toronto, whose research we are following.
Listen to the 11 minute segment

A tragic story of a sperm whale dying from consuming 64 pounds of waste, most of it plastic.
CNN article link

27 min. video. Dr. Rochman talks microplastics at H2O 2018. Highly rated talk in exit survey.

Lisa Erdle’s Research, Rochman Lab, the University of Toronto

An excerpt from Lisa Erdle's article In the Georgian Bay Forever's Rochman Lab Winter 2018 issue. Lisa Erdle is a PhD student in the Rochman Lab at the University of Toronto.

Sampling fish in the Great Lakes for Microplastics

In my PhD research, I am leading a project funded by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), in collaboration with Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) and Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC) to better understand contamination and effects of microfibers and associated chemicals in freshwater habitats. Thus far, I have sampled fish across Lake Ontario and Lake Huron, including Georgian Bay, and will quantify microplastic ingestion and determine if microplastics are a source of emerging contaminants to these fish in a freshwater food chain. Currently there is little known about microplastics in Georgian Bay, and impacts to wildlife in the Great Lakes, and my research will fill some of these gaps.

Contaminants such as flame retardants are increasingly found in the Great Lakes, and are of growing concern in Canada. Some of these contaminants are commonly added to synthetic fibers and textiles during manufacturing. My PhD research specifically aims to investigate the contamination and impacts of microfibers, and any associated chemical contamination of fish. The preliminary results of my research are expected in the spring, and the research is anticipated to be published in the fall of 2018. [Update 2019 - Link to Lisa Erdle's published research. Click here. ]

Legislation to ban microbeads in Canada will come into effect in July 2018. While this is an important move to reduce microplastics emissions, this ban only removes microplastics from personal care products, e.g., microbeads in toothpaste, face wash, etc. The greater challenge will be to work towards solutions that reduce microfibers, the far more prevalent microplastic in the Great Lakes.

Part 1: 2019 – 2021, the Parry Sound study and broad educational and collaboration efforts

Microscopic pieces of plastic and fibres are getting into Georgian Bay through many methods including washing machines. Reduction is possible, but the method needs to be tested and there are ways you can help. GBF initiated a project starting in 2019 called Divert & Capture: The fight to keep microplastics out of our water, as noted by the Parry Sound North Star.

Its purpose is to better understand the impacts and try to quantify the amount that could be diverted. We believe this pilot project is the first of its kind in Canada - it involves working with 100 resident volunteers in the Town of Parry Sound.

The project has 3 overarching goals that are focused on improving the water quality specifically in coastal communities around Georgian Bay.

  • Physically divert microplastics/microfibres from entering our water at the source.
  • Engage the community in hands-on clean up
  • Provide the public with information on what microplastics are, why they are so harmful to the water and animals, how they affect the water quality and lastly, to provide practical tips they can employ easily to prevent their own advancements to the issue.
  • What's been done?

    In short, about 100 volunteer households in Parry Sound agreed to install a filter on their washing machines - the filter catches fibres before they are washed down the drain. The volunteers will be accumulating the fibre guck and handing the guck samples to GBF over a year (the first pick-up happened in November 2019). Participants would then be asked to participate for another year.

    GBF, working with the University of Toronto Rochman Lab, will analyze the samples by weighing the amount of plastic/fibres that have been successfully diverted. GBF is also looking at the makeup (the chemicals) of the fibres within some of the samples. We continue to also work with the Town to capture and monitor, analyze and weigh the effluent from the waste water treatment facility in order to better understand the scope and breadth of the diverted substances.

    Currently, water treatment plants capture an estimated 90% of these tiny particles (most commonly shed through washing clothes such as fleece), leaving 10% to escape into our water. We have estimated based on research quantities outlined in Ms. Erdle’s report, that a possible 58, 880,000 pieces of microfibers could be entering the water from permanent Parry Sound residents (based on a population of 6400 doing one load of laundry every other day). And even more alarming is that in the summer months, the population explodes to over 60,000 seasonal residents.

    Also, more research is pointing to the volume of microfibres being dispersed in the air, where they can reach all sorts of environments including water bodies and as far as the Arctic. A source could be your dryer where microfibers are bypassing internal lint traps and being emitted into the air. A selection of volunteers will be testing the effectiveness of external lint filters attached to the exhaust pipe of the dryer.

    Other activities continue to include providing educational worksheets and facts and to organize community cleanups of public and private spaces. We engage community residents and cottagers alike along the coastal communities of Georgian Bay and provide relevant information on the potential hazards of microplastics/fibres in our waters, and our food chain while. At the same time, we give practical solutions that will help build a foundation of knowledgeable, engaged environmental stewards.
    1-hour video. GBF and researchers from the University of Toronto provide an update on the Parry Sound study . Highly rated talk in exit survey.

    Curious about the filter?
    There are different filters on the market. It's also important for septics.
    Read why at this link.
    The U of T Rochman lab tested 2 outside washing machine filters. The Microplastics Lint Luv-R sku EE002 (From Lint Luv'r) and the Wexco FIltrol 160, and found they were 87 to 89% effective at capturing microfibers. Both are available in Canada if you search online (if you buy outside of Canada, you will be subject to fees). Last time we looked they cost anywhere from $180 to around $220 BEFORE installment and shipping. For the Divert and Capture project, GBF is installing the Filtrol 160 from Wexco into Parry Sound residences.

    Go to this link to see a short video about it.

    Funders for Divert and Capture: the fight to keep microplastics out of our water
    Additionally, mobilizing community volunteers, including youth, throughout the year, to participate in cleaning up public shorelines, waterways and beaches and work with cottage communities and residents is a focus to ensure they can provide us information on litter types, and work towards making their own properties and favourite places litter free.

    Your funding support is valued

    Current and anticipated projects like this one cannot happen without support from donors, partners and other funders. Every dollar raised helps us to move critical projects forward and helps to leverage opportunities where matching funds are a necessary requirement. Your donations work hard and we truly appreciate each and every dollar given!

    Macroplastics turn into microplastics. Shoreline cleanups help.

    Besides ruining a beautiful view, big pieces of plastic litter - "macroplastics" can shred and fragment through processes like sun and wave exposure into microplastics and probably find their way to water.

    donation link
    As waterkeepers and guardians, Georgian Bayers know that plastic litter does not belong on our shorelines or in our lakes. It is critical to properly dispose of our plastic waste and be mindful of plastic pieces of equipment near water that can easily blow into the waves. Take some time to walk your favourite shorelines and remove plastic litter, and dispose of it in the most appropriate manner available in your municipality. You'll be helping reduce the amount of microplastics that get broken down into the aquatic environment.

    In the long-term - reducing our use of plastic, especially one-use plastic is critical (straws, plastic bags). Recycled plastic is certainly more friendly than creating new plastic. However, at the moment, there are so many logistical and market problems because China is no longer taking much of the world's recyclable plastic waste...and as a society we are pretty poor at putting in the correct plastic wastes in our recycling bins that can actually be turned into marketable recycled plastic material. Many incorrect things end up in recycling bins causing much expense or contamination.

    Help Wasaga be cigarette butt free

    A cigarette butt is a used filter.

    Most filters are composed of cellulose acetate, a microfiber plastic that is slow to degrade and will never decompose. Invisible ultraviolet light (UV rays) from the sun will eventually break cigarette butts into smaller pieces, but the toxic material never decomposes.

    Cigarette butts are the most commonly littered item on our beaches. In Southwestern Ontario, littered cigarette butts can get carried in the stormwater and end up in the Great Lakes. When buried on the beach, they can stay in the sand for decades and may eventually wash into the lake.

    In 2017, a butt-free beach campaign was launched for Wasaga Provincial Park Beach Area 5. The campaign was a program of Environmental Defence and the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation. The local program expanded to Wasaga Provincial Beach Area 5 with support from the Environment Network, Georgian Bay Forever, and amazing volunteers Brian Nabuurs and Susan Watson.

    In 2018, the project will continue in Wasaga Beach Area 5 largely due to the volunteer efforts of Susan Watson and Brian Nabuurs in collecting all the used cigarette butts with Park approval, and with Georgian Bay Forever continuing to spread the word to our audience.

    In 2019, GBF helped organize shoreline cleanups at Wasaga Beach in partnership with Ontario Parks and their “Healthy People, Healthy Parks” campaign. Wasaga Beach Park Staff and local volunteers gathered to cleanup their beaches despite a rolling storm which threatened in the morning. The group was enthusiastic and over 12 pounds of trash was cleaned off the shorelines of New Wasaga. This group of volunteers removed 352 cigarette butts from 900 meters of shoreline. Other common items included bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic bags and small foam pieces. Though cigarette butts remain at the top of the list for Wasaga Beach, positive efforts to keep them off the beach are underway. It is now illegal to smoke on beaches, and you may spot the “Butt Free Beach” campaign signs throughout the park which promotes the use of ashtrays and public education on smoking.

    Properly disposing your cigarette butts is easy.

    Cigarette Butt Wasaga Beach

    At Wasaga Beach 5 (and other participating beaches ), find these tools that make it easier to dispose of your butts:

    1. Look for these ashtrays pictured below at participating beaches.

    2. Empty the ashtray into this receptacle. These cigarette butts will be recycled by TerraCycle.

    * If you can't find these tools, the important thing to remember is not to leave your BUTTS on the beach. Or anywhere on the ground. Create your own receptacle out of items such as a coffee tin or pop can and then dispose properly afterwards. The beach is not an ashtray!

    BUTT is there more I can do?

    Thanks for caring! Your beaches from Wasaga Beach to the world, need to be cigarette BUTT-FREE. Here are some ways you can help beaches:

    We can find ways to temper our growing plastic reliance, and improve our waste management of plastics so they don't end up polluting our water and damaging the aquatic ecosystems! Remember - we've tackled big issues before. Collaboratively, we all worked to reduce The Ozone Hole with scientists, governments, industry and the public as one example.
    Here is how you can help:

    a) Until better solutions and more research is completed on microfibre and microplastics impacts - general tips include avoiding over consumption of clothing and particularly synthetic clothing, decrease your laundering, and minimize one-use plastic like bags.

    • A PDF download on tips to reducing microfiber plastics from getting into the environment. Click here.
    • A one-page PDF of some tips from a Pointe au Baril workshop in July 2019. Click here.

    b) Undertake cleanups of your favourite shorelines in Georgian Bay and dispose of the litter in the appropriate manner. You're helping water quality for the plants and animals in the Bay and restoring shoreline beauty. GBF is assisting communities with shoreline cleanups. Learn more about how you can get involved at this link., or contact brooke.harrison@gbf.org.

    c) Research what can be recycled in your municipality to avoid contaminating or creating extra costs for recycling. Adjust your blue bin habits accordingly.

    d)Support Ontario Private Member’s Bill 102 (previously 279), Environmental Protection Amendment Act (Microplastics Filters for Washing Machines), 2021 . Here’s how you can do it. Click here.

    e) Donate to GBF's efforts to protect the water of Georgian Bay including our 2020 proposed Collingwood extension to the ongoing project, "Divert & Capture: The fight to keep microplastics out of our water".

    f) Properly dispose of cigarette butts. They do not belong on our shorelines or beaches because they contain microfibres and have toxic chemicals that can harm wildlife.
    Funders for Divert and Capture: the fight to keep microplastics out of our water