Earth Day 2024: A 'wrap' on plastic

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- New research from the Alliance for the Great Lakes shows that more than 80 percent of beach trash near these bodies of water is plastic. That plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics, serving as environmental toxins that leach into our drinking water, blood and bodies.

For Earth Day 2024, local students from Coloma Community Schools got their hands dirty picking up trash along creeks and the Paw Paw River, all of which leads to Lake Michigan.

“There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of little tiny creeks and gulleys like this that go into the great lakes,” said Coloma teacher Tyler Cantrell.

Even near a tiny creek, there can be a lot of trash.

“We’ve cleaned up maybe, I would be generous and say 250-300 feet of creek, and we’ve got 8 or 9 trash bags,” Cantrell said. “Times that by how many thousands of miles of little stuff like this is, you can see how it can add up.”

The exorbitant plastic pollution is sadly—not a surprise to environmental advocates, like Olivia Reda from the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“Perhaps kind of the biggest pattern that we see consistently every season is that we find a lot of plastic,” Reda said.

The Alliance released new research, showing 86 percent of beach litter—collected from their "Adopt-A-Beach" program-- is made up of plastic.

“We all enjoy the great lakes in different ways," she said, "but also, it’s the drinking water source for 40 million people, so when we’re talking about impacts, like if microplastics are ending up in that water, there’s a lot of impacts that can fall from that.”

As currents flow, plastic breaks down into the natural environment, and this new research shows at least 40% of beach litter is smaller than 2.5 centimeters.

As people take strides to clean it up, advocates like Reda want to stress the importance of not producing these products in the first place.

“Additional research would help us further understand the impacts," she said, "but we know enough to know it’s not good, and we do need action on this issue in a major way.”

You can read the full report from the Alliance for the Great Lakes here.

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