Solutions for Plastic Pollution in the Land of 10,000 Lakes

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By Alex Clark

I once spent a summer living in a parked camper at a lake in southern Minnesota. If you ever get a chance to do this… do it. Do not hesitate. Lake culture will change your life.

That summer I went swimming in the lake every single morning. More often than not the water was bone chilling. After it rained the surface got thick with murky green algae. At first I shivered, but then I got over myself.

The water felt natural, a sensation that chlorine-cleansed swimming pools burn away. After an hour of swimming I’d lay on the dock and air dry before making my way to work. I felt baptized.

September of that year, as I packed my things to move away, I realized the extent to which lake culture had changed me. Never before an early riser, now I launched out of bed to run around the lake and jump into its icy waters.

The last swim we shared that season was at sunset. After a summer of backstrokes and butterflies I felt comfortable swimming to the middle to float for a while. Diving swallows all around me scooped up the bugs skimming the surface.

Eventually the sun, as it tends to do, dipped beyond the horizon. I swam home, I packed up, and I left the Land of 10,000 Lakes behind.

Lake lifestyle changed my perspective

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Minnesota is often called the Land of 10,000 Lakes when there are actually 11,842. Even without including Lake Superior this amounts to an enormous volume of freshwater. Minnesota culture defines itself by these lakes.

From the BWCA and Voyageurs National Park to (my personal favorite) Roberd’s Lake — these bodies of water are a priceless national treasure.

A byproduct of the last ice age, advancing and retreating glaciers created the lakes. Ice and snow massaged the land and left behind enormous chunks. These ice boulders  melted into what we refer to as kettle lakes.

Minnesota’s lakes took thousands of years to create. But within the last century we’ve watched as an invasive force threatens these waters.

The plastic life-cycle is strangling our freshwater ecosystem

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Poor recycling programs in many places lead to the dumping of almost 9 tons of plastic into the water each year. Clean up crews can remove large pieces of this plastic, but the majority of it will end up in rivers, lakes, and the ocean.

When it reaches the ocean this plastic will take hundreds of years to break down. On a long enough timeline all plastics will decompose. But this plastic life-cycle also complicates the problem of plastic pollution. When it’s degraded to a microscopic size, it’s effect becomes massive.

In this case what you can’t see can definitely hurt you. The plastic life-cycle leads to smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Some shrink to the size of a grain of sand or even smaller. Be sure to think about this the next time you dig your toes into a warm sandy beach.

Microplastic is, by definition, microscopic. This makes it hard to understand the extent to which the scourge of plastic surrounds us every day.

If it’s so small I can’t even see it, why should I care?

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The truth is, the smaller plastic degrades the more dangerous it becomes. We can find microplastics on every corner of the planet. It’s found on the polar ice caps, the deepest ocean trenches, and even on the peak of Mount Everest.

Minnesota’s freshwater lakes are no exception from this onslaught.

The presence of microplastic has been identified in almost every lake, river, pond, and stream in Minnesota. Plastic pollutants are so prevalent they have infiltrated every aspect of our lives. It’s in the food we eat and the beer we drink. Studies show the average person ingests at least 50,000 bits of microplastic each year.

If you think your drinking water is safe, think again. 94% of sampled bottled and tap water in the United States contain plastic particles. Currently, there are no regulations for an acceptable microplastic content in bottled water. So, the next time you think, “This water has a plasticy taste to it,” you’ll know just how right you are.

Microplastic is now so pervasive it’s even in the air you breathe.

Read that again. You are breathing in plastic.

Recent studies of plastic in the Great Lakes found high levels of microplastic clinging to a type of algae called cladophora. The most common type found were synthetic fibers often found in synthetic clothing. These fibers shed whenever we wash these fabrics. Standard filters simply cannot trap them.

Research into the binding element of cladophora algae may one day lead to solutions for plastic pollution. It may supercharge the effectiveness of clean up crews. But the real solution to plastic pollution isn’t something we can hope to fix with industrious algae.

Start by stopping: systemic solutions to plastic pollution

Some harsh truth… solving the problem of plastic pollution requires more than individual choices.

We need deep, systemic changes. Halting the creation of new waste would give nature and clean up crews time to repair waterways.

While completely eliminating plastic production is a pipe dream, there is still hope. Six different states have already enacted laws banning the use of plastic bags. Four have passed bans on polystyrene. Several more states will consider legislation to limit or ban single use plastics this year.

In 2021, nine states will consider laws to hold plastic manufacturers responsible. Their impact on our environment has been huge. Their response must also be huge. These extended producer responsibility (EPR) bills are an important legislative tool.

At a national level we passed the Save Our Seas Act in 2018. This bill focuses resources on removing plastic from our oceans and is a big step in the right direction.

Recently introduced, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is even more practical. The BFFPPA builds on already established state laws. It would reduce plastic production and enhance recycling programs. It also protects the rights of states to set local standards for plastic production and use.

These laws represent a paradigm shift in how we think about the impact of plastic on the environment.

So, contact your state, national, and local representatives! Show your support for the BFFPPA and other similar bills. The voices of environmentalists, both old and young, are essential in this fight.

In the meantime, clean up your act!

There are, of course, many ways you can make changes to reduce your impact. These lifestyle changes are a vital part of the solution to plastic pollution.

Start by reframing the way you think about plastic. Despite what you may think, plastic is not essential to everyday life. We’ve just become accustomed to its presence. It’s hard to imagine, but we can still live very comfortable lives without plastic.

Honestly though, a world completely free of plastic isn’t the answer. As we’ve seen over the last year, the benefits of plastic to our healthcare system are undeniable.

When produced and recycled in the right way, plastic is a life-saving, miracle product.

But when allowed to run rampant, it becomes an environmental catastrophe.

What are some simple things you can change in your everyday life?

  1. DON’T LITTER! Any litter you see, pick it up. Easy.
  2. Dispose of your plastic waste properly. Learn how to recycle the right way.
  3. Bring your own water bottle, coffee cup, and shopping bags with you everywhere.
  4. Shop for your “new” clothes at thrift and second-hand stores.
  5. Look for eco-conscious clothing options like hemp and organic cotton.
  6. Wash fleece and synthetic fabrics less often or invest in a Guppyfriend filter bag.
  7. Choose glass over plastic whenever possible.
  8. Take part in beach cleanups or start your own clean up crew.
  9. Secure the lid on your waste bins before you place them at the curb.
  10. Switch to bar soap and boxed laundry detergent.
  11. Seek out plastic-free home cleaning products.
  12. Support nonprofits like Ocean Blue to help protect our oceans, rivers, and lakes.
  13. Contact your elected officials!

It takes a close look at our habits to see how much unnecessary plastic exists nowadays. The packaging we use, the clothes we wear, and the companies we support… it all adds up. In only a few decades, plastic has gone from a miracle product to an environmental disaster. We all need to do our part to find solutions to the problem of plastic pollution.

My beloved lake, and many others in The Land of 10,000 Lakes, are drowning in microplastic.

It’s time to do something about it.

Author Bio: Alex Clark is a freelance writer from Des Moines, Iowa. A charming conversationalist and storyteller, he is obsessed with synergy and “sharpening his saw.” He is not afraid to read poetry to trees and is unbeatable at Gin Rummy.