Great Lakes Beaches Might Look Clean, But They’re Littered With Tiny Plastics, New Report Says

(Brian Yurasits / Unsplash)(Brian Yurasits / Unsplash)

When it comes to litter, Great Lakes residents should absolutely sweat the small stuff.

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A new report from the Alliance of the Great Lakes sums up 20 years’ worth of data on litter collected during Adopt-a-Beach cleanups, and the main takeaway is that tiny trash is a huge problem.

Of the nearly 10 million pieces of litter plucked from Great Lakes beaches since 2003, 86% is composed partially or fully of plastic, according to the report. Small bits of plastic — less than 2.5 centimeters — has been the No. 1 category of litter since the organization began tracking what it calls “tiny trash” in 2014, to the tune of more than 1.7 million individual pieces.

“We know this plastic is not going anywhere; it’s just breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces and leaching dangerous chemicals into our waterways,” the report stated.

Unlike plastics that find their way into oceans and get swept along for thousands of miles by currents, plastics on Great Lakes beaches haven’t washed up from far-off lands.

“Most of the items are there because we left them on the beach,” the report said. “Another important difference is that while we don’t drink ocean water, the Great Lakes are a source of drinking water for 40 million people.”

Other findings from the report:

— Even though smoking has been banned on a number of Great Lakes beaches, cigarette butts continue to be one of the most collected items on beach cleanup days. Cigarette butts ranked No. 1 between 2003 and 2013, and came in second from 2014 to 2023.

— A lot of litter is single-use — plastic bags, straws, food wrappers, takeout containers and plastic utensils — much of it plastic.

— The industrial pellets used to create plastic products have been found on the shore of every Great Lake, either spilled during container loading or improperly disposed of by a factory. The report said such spills were “similar to an oil spill.”

— The top 10 litter categories between 2014 and 2023 were: plastic pieces, cigarette butts, foam pieces, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, cigar tips, glass pieces, straws/stirrers, plastic bottles and metal bottle caps.

Click here to read the full report.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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