A Source of Water & Recreation for Millions, the Great Lakes Face a Growing Threat from Microplastics

The essence of outdoor culture and life in these parts is the big blue pond we all live beside. Georgian Bay is the archetypal godfather of Ontario’s backcountry. It’s long been a beacon of the area’s natural prestige, and a marker of cleanliness. Its clear, cold waters are the envy of the world. And it’s tough for many of us to accept that there could be anything wrong with it.

 

Georgian Bay’s 30,000 Islands. Photo: OTMPC

words: Nelson Phillips

But Georgian Bay is a large and complex ecosystem, and isn’t immune to the world’s growing environmental problems. Contaminants in the Great Lakes are nothing new.

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As one of the most populated corridors in North America, the Great Lakes region is no stranger to bacteria, parasites and invasive species, along with wastewater, agricultural and industrial runoff. Recently, microplastics have been tracked in the Lakes, and the data is alarming. A 2016 study from the United States Geological Survey found plastic fibres present in 22 percent of all river flow into the Great Lakes.

In a 2016 study, the provincial government cited up to 6.7 million particles of plastic per square kilometre in Great Lakes nearshore waters.

In March 2018, the World Health Organization launched an inquiry into the risks associated with plastic in drinking water, after more than 90 percent of globally popular bottled water brands were found to contain microplastics. In one bottle of Nestlé Pure Life (sourced in Ontario at Aberfoyle and Erin) concentrations of plastic were as high as 10,000 parts per litre. The province of Ontario leads Canada in monitoring for microplastics.

In a 2016 study, the provincial government cited up to 6.7 million particles of plastic per square kilometre in Great Lakes nearshore waters, with the highest count occurring in Humber Bay, Toronto. Plastic microbeads (spherical pieces about a millimeter in width or smaller) were present in each of those samples, making up approximately 14 percent on average of the microplastics found.

 

ABOVE Autumn Peltier. Photo courtesy Stephanie Peltier

Sites tested included Lake Erie downstream of Detroit-Windsor, the mouth of the Grand River, and near Fort Erie. Samples from Lake Ontario were collected in Hamilton Harbour, Humber Bay, and Toronto Harbour.

Georgian Bay was not tested, but an independent study conducted by Amy and Dave Freeman for National Geographic’s Beyond the Edge blog, found that in 969 samples from nearby Lake Superior in 2015, 94 percent contained microplastics.

Overwhelming evidence points to a growing problem with pollution and microplastics in the Great Lakes, but with any luck, the calvary is on the way.

Overwhelming evidence points to a growing problem with pollution and microplastics in the Great Lakes, but with any luck, the calvary is on the way. The EU banned microbeads in 2014, and US Congress followed suit in 2017. Environment Canada says that effective July 2018, microbeads in various shower gels, toothpastes and facial scrubs will be banned.

Furthering that positive upswing, research by the Global Microplastics Initiative, one of the largest and most diverse microplastic pollution datasets, reveals that of out of 22 sample tests from Georgian Bay, only a few signalled evidence of plastics. Notably, samples from Tobermory, Severn Sound, Massasauga Provincial Park, and Byng Inlet averaged around 2 particles/litre. Samples from Owen Sound, Nottawasaga Bay, Christian Island, and Killbear Provincial Park all registered zero.

 

Snug Harbour lighthouse, Georgian Bay. Photo: OTMPC

In March, Autumn Peltier, a 13-year-old water protector from the Unceded Territory of the Wikwemikong First Nation of Manitoulin Island, addressed the United Nations General Assembly.

The lone Canadian to be nominated for the 2017 Children’s International Peace Prize, Peltier was in New York to speak about sanctity of water as representative of civil society. “Where I come from I am so fortunate—I can still drink the water from the lake,” she told the delegation.

“No one should have to worry if the water is clean or if they will run out of water… No child should grow up not knowing what clean water is… We all have a right to this water.”

If we can stand to learn anything from our treatment of water, it’s that we take for granted the nature of life on this planet and in this country. We don’t need much to sustain life; shelter, food, and water. Finding out how we’ve impacted Georgian Bay with pollution and microplastics is a crippling reality to shatter our preconceived notions of a pristine Canada.

“Many people don’t think water is alive or has a spirit. My people believe this to be true,” Peltier added. “Mother Earth doesn’t need us, but we need her… One day I will be an ancestor, and I want my great-grandchildren to know I tried hard to fight so they can have clean drinking water.”

 

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