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Hunting for plastic pollution in the Great Lakes

A research expedition recently set sail from Chicago to search for a Great Lakes garbage patch.

So-called "garbage patches" or islands are actually collections of tiny plastic particles that are choking up regions of the world’s oceans. The expedition has been testing the waters of Lakes Huron and Michigan for a similar phenomenon.

I met up with expedition organizer Asta Mail at a marina in downtown Chicago. It’s a hot day, and a street vendor immediately offers us bottled water.

Mail points down at a plastic bottle in Lake Michigan. It’s pretty easy plastic hunting.

“Bottled water, with a bottle floating right in front of us here! So here we’ve got a Cubs balloon, a Dunkin’ Donuts styrofoam container, a Bud Light beer can, and a dead--it looks like a carp--next to a tire with a piece of styrofoam on it,” she says.

But this expedition is actually on the hunt for invisible plastic. A mix of researchers and sailors and citizen scientists is sampling water for nine days.

Out on the sailboat, Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza - she’s the expedition’s head researcher, from University of Wisconsin – explains. Rios says ‘trash island’ is a misleading phrase; what they’re looking for is more like an invisible cloud of particles near the surface.

Most of them can only be seen through a microscope.

The trouble is, even tiny plastic sticks around for a long time.

“You throw away your plastic and you never see again. And then you can say, oh, disappear. It’s gone. But it’s not!”

Fish can confuse it with food, or swallow it by accident. Researchers are still investigating all the effects of that, but they do know that fish can choke on the plastic.

What’s more, plastic particles attract chemical pollutants and carry them around. The plastic turns into kind of a magic carpet, giving PCBs and DDT and dioxins a ride through the lake.

Rios says those chemicals are “toxic for aquatic organisms, toxic for you, toxic for me, for everybody.”

But more research is needed to know exactly what this might mean for fish and people.

So, what can be done?

Rios says it’s simple.

Plastics in the Great Lakes come from cigarette butts, bags and bottles, even exfoliating face wash with little plastic beads in it.

“We need to follow the three Rs that they teach you in the school: reduce, recycle and reuse. But I would like to add, refuse. If you don’t need to use plastic don’t use it,” she says.

The most surprising thing I learned here is that people aren’t the only organisms that use plastic. If a plastic particle is a magic carpet for chemicals, it’s more like a metropolis for tiny marine bacteria.

Melissa Duhaime of the University of Michigan studies that bacteria.

“Maybe it’s just there to catch a ride to a new location. Or maybe it’s there to actually use that plastic to make a living,” Duhaime says.

She says it’s possible the microbes are breaking down plastic, snacking on it. If that happened on a large enough scale it could be a pollution solution, of sorts.

That’s when Duhaime pulls out Mutant 59: The plastic eaters!

“It’s a novel from the 70s about these crazy plastic-eating entities.”

Ah, the 1970s, when it was plastic, good, bacteria, bad.

“This was like an end of earth scenario where, you know, the microbes melted all the plastic that our human infrastructure depends on, so... anyway, I bought it on Amazon for like 13 cents, if you’re interested! It wasn’t a bestseller,” she says, laughing.

Point being, the scientific tables have turned.

Humans created plastic, and now we might need some help destroying it.

“We are out to find the plastic eaters,” says Duhaime.

Duhaime is, at least.

Great Lakes plastic is an emerging area of research, so the rest of the crew is just out to find the plastic.