Long the dumping grounds for various types of toxic waste, the Great Lakes have faced no shortage of pollution problems over the years. The latest, while tiny in size, is one of the trickiest and most dangerous issues yet.
Scientists have discovered that plastic microbeads, a common ingredient in facial scrubs and toothpastes, are finding their way into the Great Lakes--the world's largest source of freshwater. Because the tiny bits of plastic resemble fish food, aquatic creatures eat them, and there is concern that they are making their way up the food chain to humans.
Much of the problem can be attributed to storms, when wastewater treatment plants discharge raw sewage into the lakes. But there is increasing evidence that some of the beads are slipping through the processing plants, which aren't designed to capture such small bits of material.
Worse yet, there is no viable way of removing them. Any attempt to skim the waters and filter out the microplastics would scoop up plankton and other essential parts of the food chain. “You’d be killing all the living necessary aspects of the ecosystem at the same time you’re trying to extract the plastic," Sherri A. Mason, an environmental chemist at the State University of New York in Fredonia, told The New York Times.
That leaves eliminating the use of microbeads as the only solution to the problem. Thankfully, that's happening. In recent months, major cosmetics companies like Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, and Procter & Gamble have pledged to phase out the use of the beads in favor of natural alternatives. The shift, however, could take two years or more.
Photos by Brendan Bannon for The New York Times