An alarming wake-up call

Plastic pollutes lakes, wildlife, people, advocates call for change

Local community group Plastics FLOAT works to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, help plan no-waste events, and hold local cleanups.

ALPENA –The increasing production and discarding of plastic is taking a toll on the environment, causing a worldwide problem that desperately needs to be addressed –including along the shores of the Great Lakes.

From product materials to packaging, plastic has infiltrated so many aspects of daily life that it is difficult to know where to even start making a change.

A 2017 study led by Jenna R. Jambeck and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Science Advances estimates that 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050 if current production and waste management trends go unchanged.

Because it is seeping into the environment at such a rapid pace and research about prevention is in its infancy, scientists are unable to fully comprehend just how big the problem potentially is for the environment and people.

Heather Rawlings from the Alpena Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office told The Alpena News that microplastics in our Great Lakes is posing a major threat.

“I’m sure the wildlife is being affected by this,” Rawlings said. “It’s getting eaten and getting into the food chain. There is no doubt.”

The Public Library of Science’s journal, PLOS ONE, released a study this past spring that tested the presence of anthropogenic debris (manmade materials such as plastics) in global tap water samples (including a sample from Alpena), salt, and beer made from water in the Great Lakes.

Synthetic debris was found in 81 percent of the tap water samples and in all 12 brands of beer.

Presence of microplastics in the Great Lakes has been an alarming wake-up call for Michigan, considering our freshwater lakes are our greatest resource. Awareness and education are key components to creating any kind of change, experts say, and local initiatives have been getting kids involved to prepare the next generation for their role in tackling the problem.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) started a program across the county known as B-WET that works with community leaders to provide place-based learning centered around science that is related to each program’s specific location.

In Northeast Michigan, the B-Wet program is supported by the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, and the Jesse Besser Museum to teach kids to be good stewards of the environment.

The program has allowed teachers to develop curriculum based upon real world problems the state is facing and teaching students how to apply practical knowledge with hands-on experience. Bob Thomson’s class from Ella White Elementary centered the B-Wet program around microplastics and its presence in the Great Lakes. That has been a constant theme in Thomson’s class, and he has previously had students create their own informative videos about microplastics and plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

The hope for the class is that it’s changing the way the next generation thinks about plastic, but it is still a problem that needs to see action now.

In October, the European Union voted to ban single-use plastics, which includes items such as straws, silverware and coffee stirrers. The ban will tentatively take effect in 2021 to give all nations enough time to properly plan out the transition. In the U.S., California was the first state to ban straws at restaurant tables, and Seattle has followed suit to become the first major U.S. city to ban single-use plastic straws and silverware.

Companies have also gotten on board with these bans. Starbucks, Aramark and American Airlines will also be banning plastic straws. However, banning items comes with a lot more red tape than expected.

While some places in the U.S. have stepped up to curb single use plastics, here in Michigan, there is an actual ban on plastic bans.

Michigan state Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, introduced Senate Bill 853 in 2016. The bill was created “to preempt local governments from imposing regulations, restrictions or taxes on plastic grocery bags or other ‘auxiliary containers,’ defined as a disposable or reusable bag, cup, bottle, or other packaging.”

At the time, Washtenaw County had already imposed a bag tax and other counties had been considering doing so. The bill to ban plastic bans passed and was signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2016.

While Stamas’ legislation creates a roadblock for local plastic bans, it is not impossible to start being a part of the solution, area advocates said.

With Alpena being a coastal town, the issue of microplastics in the Great Lakes is never far from consciousness. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is also a constant reminder that our lakes play a vital role in local economy, as well as the state’s.

Stephanie Gandulla is a maritime archaeologist at the sanctuary, and she said it is important to make daily changes to cut back on plastic. She also stressed that it is something that can easily be incorporated it into businesses.

Gandulla said people rent out the classroom space at the sanctuary on Fletcher Street for meetings, and they encourage people not to bring in any plastic to those meetings.

“Take at look at meetings, everyone has plastic water bottles,” Gandulla said, pointing out a common source of plastic pollution. “We say to them, ‘We would appreciate it if you didn’t bring plastic when you come to rent the building,'” Gandulla said.

Instead, the sanctuary offers anyone who rents the space plenty of glassware and a sink to eliminate plastic waste.

Alpena also has a group called Plastics FLOAT (For the Love of Alpena Today) that has been working to educate and prevent plastics pollution. Plastics FLOAT is a 4-H student group that focuses on awareness of plastic pollution and prevention. It was started by a local student, Hannah MacDonald, in 2013 when she was in high school. It has grown in the last few years with the help of adult coordinators Gandulla and Jessica Luther, as well as assistance from MacDonald when she is available.

The group has been a part of a variety of community events like the annual chowder and chili cook off, providing education and alternatives to single-use plastics to create no-waste events in the community. The group is student-driven and helps empower kids to get out in the community to advocate for a great cause, and they are always looking for new members and volunteers.

Sylvie Luther is a seventh-grader at Thunder Bay Junior High, and she has been a member of the group for two years. Luther feels strongly about the work the group does, and she is eager to encourage more people to reduce their single-use plastics.

“It’s important for people to not use single-use plastics, because when they throw them away, most of them can’t be recycled, and plastic can take up to 600 years to break down,” Luther said. “Also, when you use single use plastics, most of it will end up in the water, or in a landfill, thus polluting our earth and slowly making it uninhabitable. If people reduce or stop using single use plastics, we can save our planet from plastic pollution.”

While it can be hard to comprehend what plastics are doing to the water and wildlife, a new study has found that plastics are now affecting people. National Public Radio recently reported on a study conducted by researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency Austria that studied stool samples from eight people in eight different countries and every sample tested positive for up to nine types of plastic.

The samples were given from people in Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and Austria. That points to a much larger problem than just a little pollution.

Plastics pollution is affecting the environment, wildlife, and even people.

Environmental advocates say now is time to start addressing the problem.

So, how do you approach a problem that seems insurmountable? Start small. Here are simple things you can do right now to make a change.

∫ Recycling isn’t enough — try to cut out single-use plastics from daily life.

∫ Switch to a biodegradable bamboo toothbrush, which will last longer and won’t be found floating around in the ocean years from now.

∫ Buy glass floss containers as opposed to plastic.

∫ Invest in a reusable water bottle and stop buying disposable bottles.

∫ Take reusable bags to the store instead of using the available plastic ones. According to Plastics FLOAT, only a small percentage of plastic bags are recycled, and those that are create problems at the recycling facility, including machinery jams and contaminating other recyclables, which lowers the quality and decreases the viability of recycling programs.

∫ Carry your morning latte around in a reusable coffee cup.

∫ Use cloth instead of paper towels.

∫ Get involved in local organizations — check out Plastics FLOAT on Facebook to see how to help.

∫ Encourage others to start reducing their use of single use plastics

∫ Help with local clean ups.

∫ Ask for plastic alternatives at local businesses and take your money elsewhere if they won’t offer plastic free products.

∫ Educate yourself and stay informed.

∫ Stay tuned for a new, upcoming Marine Debris exhibit at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and an upcoming film festival featuring films about pollution and how to fix it.

∫ Start today. Just one person eliminating a variety of sources of single-use plastics can prevent thousands of pounds of waste in just one year. Be a part of the solution.

Kaitlin Ryan can be reached at or at 358-5693.