A Sea of Plastic

Groups move to eliminate single-use plastics to benefit the environment and reduce risks.
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Duck swimming in pollution
Photography courtesy of Thinkstock

How often have you seen an empty plastic water bottle on the beach or floating amid the river debris in an eddy along the riverbank? Unfortunately, it happens all too often. Single-use plastic water bottles, plastic bags, six-pack rings, Styrofoam cups and other plastic packaging and pieces are common finds on our Great Lakes shores, inland lakes and rivers.

More than 22 million pounds of plastic pollution winds up in the Great Lakes every year, according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an NGO based in Chicago. The alliance is known for major water protection initiatives, including among others, the federal ban on microbeads in soaps and toothpastes and an annual Adopt-a-Beach cleanup that now results in 18 tons of trash being collected, more than 85 percent of which is plastic.

Photography courtesy of Thinkstock

Single-use plastics are a concern for a number of reasons. They require fossil fuels to make and they do not decompose but do break down into ever-smaller pieces and particles that stay in the environment. Those particles may absorb toxic chemicals and have been shown to enter the food chain as they are consumed by fish, mussels, animals and birds.

The alliance is not alone in its campaign against plastic in our waters. Organizations across the country increasingly are taking steps to reduce the proliferation of single-use plastic. Take, for example, the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, which has opted to stop selling bottled water at its popular annual Lakeshore Art Festival in July.

“We saw a ginormous number of plastic bottles recycled and consumed, and it seemed kind of a waste …,” said Carla Flanders, the chamber’s vice president of marketing. “We want to reduce the number of bottles used and be good stewards of the environment. It was important that event not only be economically sustainable but environmentally sustainable, too.”

A great message, for sure.

The chamber sells about 1,200 bottles at the event. Flanders is trying to figure out what might be done to encourage vendors to do the same. This year’s festival will provide free water to those who bring their own bottles, using WaterMonsters, large tanks with spigots.

The Detroit Zoo also discontinued the sale of bottled water, though “it was the No. 1 revenue-producing concession item,” a large full-page magazine ad recently proclaimed: “Given the enormity of plastic waste these bottles represent, their damaging effects to our waters and the dangers they pose to wildlife, the zoo said, ‘Not on our land.’”

Water Monster
Lakeshore Art Festival will provide free water to those who bring their own bottles. // Photography courtesy of Lakeshore Art Festival

The zoo has 1.7 million visitors annually. Bottled water sales once brought in a quarter million dollars annually, according to its website. The zoo also is providing water stations for visitors.

The famed Shedd Aquarium in Chicago is yet another. It and a coalition of 22 aquariums around the country, a group called the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, have eliminated 5 million single-use plastic straws, plus plastic bags. Shedd and its partners, who are recruiting private businesses to join them, have committed to significantly reducing or eliminating single-use plastic beverage bottles by 2020.

The list goes on.

You too can do something about the problem. This year, when you go up to the cottage, leave the bottled water at the store if there is no emergency. If your cottage tap water comes from a well, consider a pitcher water filter to improve the taste. Buy an attractive reusable water bottle for the beach or a hike or paddle. Ask for paper instead of plastic bags when you shop for cottage provisions, or better yet, bring reusable cloth bags for groceries. It’s a fact: every little bit helps.


Howard Meyerson is the managing editor for Michigan BLUE.

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