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The Great Lakes Pollution Question

The Great Lakes Pollution Question

the-Great-Lakes-Pollution-QuestionBy Justin Dubs

We all know about the Great Lakes and learned about them in school. Our teachers required us to memorize their names for tests. But do we ever ask the Great Lakes pollution question?

Does pollution from the Great Lakes flow into the Atlantic Ocean?

Perhaps you’ve never thought about that. Some people have been asking though. This post will provide some answers.

Let’s start with a quick overview. The Great Lakes are five interconnected bodies of freshwater. All of which are part of the same watershed. This means a drop of water in Lake Superior flows through each lake. The droplet eventually reaches the St. Lawrence river and then, it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

There are around 5,000 smaller lakes, streams, and rivers connecting the lakes together. Allowing for the constant flow of water to move from one water body to the next.

The lakes are a closed system. This means they have a low volume output of water into the ocean. Most of the water in the lakes recycles itself – and is from a giant glacier!.

The closed system leaves the lakes vulnerable to long-sustaining pollution. It takes a long time for a pollutant to filter out of the water.


What Has Research Shown?

The Great Lakes Guide did a study. It would take about 200 years for a single water droplet to travel from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. That’s a long time! 

Due to the slow movement of water, pollutants continue to build up and wreak havoc on the ecosystem. They inhibit the environment and enter the food chain. This causes a chain reaction, leading the pollutants all the way to humans.

Per the Environmental Protection Agency, the pollution comes from a multitude of sources.  From manufacturing to industrial, to agriculture, pollution finds its way into the lakes in all different forms.

Runoff from agriculture, industrial waste, and debris from manufacturing all find their way into the lakes. A large part of these pollutants break down into microplastics, causing even more damage to the lakes.

All of this to say, an answer to the Great Lakes pollution question isn’t as pretty as the lakes themselves.


Microplastics in the Great Lakes

Microplastics are a big cause for concern for all the oceans in the world. But did you know that microplastics in the Great Lakes are a growing problem as well?

Walking along the shoreline of the lakes you see plastic debris littering the ground. 

Microplastics form when these plastic materials break down into smaller and smaller pieces.  Eventually, these pieces become smaller than five millimeters. That’s the point in the plastic life cycle we start calling them “microplastics”.

Because of their small size, microplastics are able to avoid removal in water treatment facilities. This allows for the rapid spread of these plastics. They are so small they’re even spread by the wind blowing.

Microplastics are so widespread there is evidence of them in drinking water and even beer!


Why Are Microplastics So Bad For The Lakes?

For starters, the large amount of tiny plastic is beginning to cover the bottoms of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.  

A study by Julie Peller of Valparaiso University takes a look at the algae Claudophora in the lakes. Nearly all samples of the algae contain pieces of microplastic fibers.


More on Claudophora

Claudophora is the most widely spread algae in the Great Lakes – meaning this discovery is daunting. Its proliferation comes as a result of pollution killing off phytoplankton at the surface, which has allowed more light to reach the Cladophora below.

Peller’s team went on to take clean samples of the algae and apply microplastic fibers to them. The fibers cling to the algae and the algae absorb them. 

This is both a concerning and welcoming revelation. 

Since Claudophora is so widespread it covers most of the bottom of the Great Lakes. Binding with the microplastics creates a toxic environment for the fish living in the lakes.

The fish eat the plastics which then contaminates the food chain. These fish are essential to the Great Lakes fishing community as well as the ecosystem.

A study of the belly contents of double-crested cormorant birds shows microplastics and other man-made items. The study also shows that the amount of debris found in the birds does not vary much by location. This means that plastic pollution is evenly distributed across the lakes.

The study of the cormorants is alarming due to their diet. Cormorants only eat fish. So the majority of the plastic in their stomachs comes from fish.

Can you see now why we need to ask the Great Lakes pollution question?


The Good News

There is some hope when it comes to the clean-up efforts in the lakes. The microplastics affinity to bind to the Claudophora is important. It offers a way to remove the plastic from the lakes.

The process of the plastic binding to the algae is adsorption. Plastic has this same affinity with organic waste.

In the wastewater treatment process, organic waste filters out of the water. The waste then becomes sludge. Plastics attract this sludge in the same way as the algae.

This belief is a blueprint for how to efficiently clean up microplastics in the future. Testing and development of more efficient systems is ongoing.


Ocean Blue Project Create a Cleanup Program

By now you are probably thinking, “How can I help?” Well, I have good news.

The Ocean Blue Project Create a Clean Up Program

This program gives you the opportunity to easily set up a beach or river cleanup in your area.  Organizing volunteers to clean up our waterways makes a huge difference for our planet!

There is also an option to donate to a cleanup effort!

By using the Ocean Blue Project Create a Cleanup program, you become a Clean-Up Crew Leader. And, we list your event on our site.

The event page has a full listing of what to bring, what to pick up, what to look out for, and how to safely share the area with nature.

You will also see that volunteers can sign up at the bottom of the page to attend the event.  This allows for an easy listing of attendees for your cleanup event.


Sandcastle Foundation Wells Fargo Partnership

In 2019, the Ocean Blue project and Wells Fargo began a partnership in San Francisco through the cleanup program. They used biodegradable bags to collect debris from the beaches.

The partnership continues through the Sandcastle Foundation.

“The SandCastle Foundation awards grants to organizations supporting charitable, religious, scientific, literary, humanitarian or educational purposes in Minneapolis, Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Louis, Missouri, with a focus on supporting children and their families, education and the environment.”

Through the partnership with Wells Fargo, Ocean Blue Project will be able to organize cleanups in the Great Lakes region.


So, What Have We Learned About the Great Lakes Pollution Question Here?

The Great Lakes are all interconnected with water flowing from Lake Superior all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The lakes are victim to pollution the same as other major bodies of water. Because of their interconnected nature, pollution flows the same routes as the water. This means that runoff, debris, and microplastics flow freely all the way into the ocean.

How can you help stop this?

The Ocean Blue Project’s Create a Cleanup Program is a great way to conveniently organize and run a cleanup in the region. In just a few hours you can make a major, long-lasting impact on the environment. And even set a good example for future generations. 

Another way to help is to reduce your everyday usage of plastic products, especially single-use plastics.

Opt for reusable grocery bags. Refuse plastic silverware when ordering out. Use reusable straws.

Education is always key. If you need ideas or assistance launching a program to educate young people in your community, check out our Blue Schools curriculum.



A little bit goes a long way. If we all do our part now we will build towards a better future for our planet.


Author Bio: Justin Dubs is a Pittsburgh-based writer and avid outdoorsman.