This micro substance isn’t a micro-problem
By 2050, experts predict that Lake Ontario will contain more plastic than fish.
Plastic levels in our Lakes are rising (it makes up 80% of our pollutants right now). And the most dangerous type of plastic is actually the smallest — microplastic.
We’ve known for a while that plastic is bad for the environment. Yet it’s too widely consumed to get rid of plastic items entirely. So we’ve opted to a solution: recycling. Makes sense right? People drink water from plastic bottles. Might as well re-use the plastic to make stuff like clothing.
Clothing?!?!?! Yeah, your Patagonia fleece jacket was probably made from old plastic water bottles. 80 bucks for a plastic water bottle jacket… rip off 🙄.
But this actually isn’t a solution.
It’s actually a bigger problem.
In order to make products such as fleece, diapers, and kitchen cloths, we need to use a type of plastic called microplastics, specifically microfibres.
The accumulation of microplastics in our lakes is becoming a huge issue.
71% of plastics in the Great lakes are microfibres. The majority comes from our laundry machine water (microfibres in clothes).
Why are Microfibres so dangerous?
When they enter the water, they behave like sponges attracting many different pollutants in the water (oil, industrial waste, etc). Since these fibers are very small, we can’t see much of this pollution.
And neither can the fish. They’re consuming these fibers and many other pollutants without even knowing it.
These are the same fish on your dinner plate.
Why are microfibres even getting in our lakes in the first place?
Q: Since they’re causing such a fuss, what’s letting them in the lakes in the first place; don’t we have sewers?
A: Well, yeah we have sewers that are meant to filter water. But 40% of microfibres are not filtered out because they’re way too small for the systems to filter.
Ok, so we have microfibres in our lakes, big deal?
The Great Lakes are under tremendous amounts of ecological stress. This is compromising our water health and safety. Considering they make up about 20% of the world’s total freshwater (and we need freshwater), we need to keep our Great Lakes… great(health-wise).
Microfibres/microplastics aren’t the only things compromising the health of the GL. Invasive species, phosphorus, agricultural runoff, and industrial waste are just a few to name.
In case you’re interested, here are 50 more stressors.
Although there are so many different factors impacting the health of the Great Lakes (Seriously, are we trying to be thirsty by 2030?? 😣), microplastics are by far one of the worst.
Our lakes are becoming polluted beyond repair. And the culprit? Microplastics.
What’s the solution to micro-fiber pollution?
Right now, sewage systems can’t filter our these dangerous plastics.
We have 1 of 2 options.
- Improve sewage filtration systems so that we don’t have microfibers entering lakes.
- Improve laundry systems so that we don’t have microfibers entering the sewage systems in the first place.
The main use of microfibers is found in clothing items. And normally people wash their clothes(I mean, I’d hope so), when this happens thousands and millions of strands come off from the clothing, which goes in the washing machine water, entering sewage systems eventually.
Most of your clothes contain tons of microfibres (from your socks to your blouses), with billions of people in the world and billions of microfiber based clothing, this is a ton of little fibers going into our water systems.
In the Great Lakes basin, there are around 34 million people. That’s a lot of people and a lot of microfibers (from clothing) entering our Great Lakes. For context: single washing a fleece jacket can give off 100,000 microfibers.
There are plenty of individualistic things we can do.
Things like washing your clothes less or getting a washing machine with a lint liner or using colder water so that fewer microfibers come off.
And maybe you’ll do some of these things now that you understand the dangers of microplastics.
But a few people improving their habits isn’t enough to conquer this macro problem of microfibers. In reality, not enough people know about the dangers of microfibers on water systems. But if many people DID take action, we could have a multiplying effect on the issue:
Many people making small changes = many small changes = big change
Some small changes:
- Avoid buying low-quality clothes, and opt for more eco-friendly products
- Avoid using bottled water (reduce your plastic usage)
- Wash your clothes less
- Use cold water when washing your clothes
- Purchase a washing machine lint filter (your septic system and environment will thank you)
But We also need to find a long term solution
Although we can collectively make small changes — we need to eliminate microfiber emissions entirely. The pollution in our water systems is getting out of hand.
If we want clean water to drink and clean fish to eat in the next 20 years, stopping micro-plastic pollution is the first step.
Somehow, we need to fix sewage filtration systems.
How? Well, we don’t know yet.
But there are a couple of things we can do to improve the sewage systems (and eventually reduce microfiber emissions entirely).
We’ll start by Digitalizing sewage systems is an option
By involving technologies like sensors and nanomaterials, we can improve the accuracy of our systems. We can work on reducing the number of microfibers entering our waterway, therefore reducing the number of “sponges” in our ocean attracting pollutants; reducing the plastic/pollution in lakes that fish are eating.
There is some research going into improving the sewage systems, and we need to keep up with it. The more research we have, the closer we’ll arise to finding a long-term solution.
Technological innovations are going to be key to improving these systems. Soon, I’m going to be working on researching possible ways we can implement technologies, like AI and nanotechnology, to help solve this massive issue.
We’ll be able to eat our salmon free of plastic! Just the way you like it 😊.
But I don’t actually know the solution yet (that’s what I’ll be researching 🤷♂️).
Up until recently, I didn’t even know this was a problem.
What we should be doing about microplastics
We must start by understanding the issue more and having more people know about this problem.
For those of us living in Ontario, we are directly affected by this. This isn’t a problem like curing hunger in Kenya or stopping the cutting of trees in Brazil. Microplastic pollution is literally happening in our backyards.
We need to share this problem. Inform people about it. I think it’s crazy that the average person doesn’t know about microplastics and how bad they are for the environment. If not enough people know about the problem, how can we even attempt to take action?
Let’s take action.
Send this article to 3 people to inform them about this massive-micro problem. Together, we need more smart people researching the safety of our water systems.
As we’re working towards the bigger goal (of eradicating microplastic pollution), remember, every small thing you do, makes a difference.
For the health and safety of our fish and waters, let’s invest our time in learning about technologies that can solve this problem. So that by 2050, we can prove experts wrong, and actually, have more fish than plastic in our Great Lakes. Hopefully, we have no plastic by then.
If you’re interested in doing more:
Maybe you want to make a bigger impact than just sharing this article and making small adjustments to your life?
Check out this resource to learn more about human Anthropocene + the great lakes.
- Take action in your community; speak up about this dilemma.
- There are so many other issues with the Great Lakes. Learn about them and be a leader. We need more people understanding problems as grand as the health of the great lakes.
- Write an article or film a video
- Talk to professionals (like limnologists) to learn more
- Attend conferences like The Great Lakes and St.Lawrence initiatives.