Does Grand Traverse Bay Have a Plastic Problem?
Beach cleaning crews have picked up larger-than-usual loads of plastic trash this year
By Patrick Sullivan | June 16, 2018
Some seasoned beachcombers noticed an alarming amount of plastic trash washed up along Grand Traverse Bay this spring, fueling worry that’s been building over how so much plastic is getting into the Great Lakes and what the consequences might be.
Photographer John Robert Williams has spent years walking the southeast shore of West Bay and picking up trash; he said he’s never seen as much plastic as he saw this spring.
“Nothing even close,” Williams said. “This is just crazy.”
Greg Reisig, chairman of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, said it’s not just Williams who has noted excessive amounts of plastic in Lake Michigan this spring. He said he’s seen Facebook posts of pictures of washed up plastic from across the region.
“All of us have been doing beach cleanups for a long time,” Reisig said. “This spring, we all noticed a lot more plastics. We’re hearing from beach cleanup squads that they’ve always found a little bit of plastic, but this year they’ve found more and more plastics washing up.”
PLASTIC TRASH MYSTERY
One of the biggest questions posed by all the washed-up beach plastic is where it comes from.
Carl Ganter, the Traverse City-based co-founder and director of Circle of Blue, a center for reporting on global water issues, said that’s not an easy question to answer.
“I think there’s a great detective story to figure out where the plastic that we’re seeing on our shorelines is coming from,” said Ganter.
Clearly, a lot of the plastic washes into the water from nearby, Ganter said.
“Storm water flows still go to the bay, so the more plastic we use, the more plastic there is on the side of the road, it all washes downstream.” Ganter said.
Christine Crissman, executive director of the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, said she also heard about the plastic piling up on beaches this spring, but she’s not sure what to make of it.
“We’ve had several people tell us that same thing,” Crissman said. “Besides sort of anecdotally, I couldn’t tell you whether there was more this year than there was in the past.”
While the exact sources of the plastic trash that ends up in the bay cannot be determined, Crissman said, it is not surprising that people would see more debris in the spring; melting snow and April storms flush all kinds of things from land into the water.
Crissman said the plastic in the bay is probably the detritus of people leading their everyday lives, sometimes inadvertently leaving trash behind.
The trash gets blown into snow piles over the winter, and those snow piles are often located near bodies of water so that when they melt, debris washes downstream. Like Cantor, Crissman noted that trash also accumulates in drains. The first big rain of the season unclogs those drains, and the material washes into the water, she said.
“When you get that big melt or a rain or something like that, it kind of washes them all out,” Crissman said.
Sometimes, plastic waste flows into the bay despite good intentions.
Take a recycling drop-off location near Reisig’s home in Elk Rapids. Large bins were recently switched out with small dumpsters that can be picked up and emptied by a waste-hauling truck, a move made to reduce the amount of energy it takes to haul the material away.
“There is a flaw,” Reisig said. The truck’s claw “lifts the bin straight up in the air and then down, and they expect everything to fall into the truck. Well, when there’s a lot of stuff in there, it gets jammed, and they have to really pump it until everything drops into the truck.”
If there is any wind present, lighter debris floats away, and much of it floats into a nearby wetland, which drains into Elk Lake, which drains into East Bay. This year, Reisig said, a volunteer donned waders and trudged into the swamp to remove plastic debris that had migrated from the recycling station.
LAKE PLASTICS 101
There are also questions about how much plastic is in Grand Traverse Bay.
Since 2014, Suttons Bay-based Inland Seas Education Association has worked with Dr. Sherri Mason of State University New York to collect data that one day could be used to understand how much plastic there is in the Great Lakes.
They are measuring micro-plastics, the product of larger pieces of plastic broken down over time. Samples are collected by students aboard Inland Sea’s Schoolship.
It’s a slow process, though, in part because the SUNY laboratory is backlogged. Processing samples to determine micro-plastic content is an expensive and laborious process; it involves researchers in deep concentration, hunched over microscopes.
“Going through each sample takes a long time and, consequently, costs a lot of money,” said Fred Sitkins, Inland Seas executive director.
Each year since 2014, students aboard Inland Seas vessels have collected samples — primarily from Grand Traverse Bay — and that data could one day be the key to understanding plastic-levels in the Great Lakes, but the research is ongoing, and Sitkins said he doesn’t have answers yet.
Sitkins also said he knows that micro-plastics have gotten into the food chain.
“It’s not only entering the food chain, but it is climbing the food chain,” Sitkins said.
The rise of plastic in the Great Lakes mirrors the what’s happening in the oceans, a disturbing development, considering that the consequences for the food chain and human health are unknown.
Inland Seas isn’t the only organization putting students on the frontline of plastic research.
Science teacher John Prokes recruited 30 students this spring to clean 35 miles of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Prokes, a teacher at Bear Lake Schools, said he and his students found a startling amount of plastic.
Prokes wanted his students to learn about plastic’s durability and the effects humans have on the environment.
The students separated plastic from non-plastic debris and brought the plastic back to school to catalog it, in hopes of determining what it is and where it comes from. The amount and variety of plastic material was a lesson in itself and teaches the students to be more conscientious consumers, Prokes said.
“The nice thing about this is, there’s not one takeaway, there’s multiple takeaways,” he said. “When they see this variety of debris, then they look at the resources they use in their everyday lives, and it’s like, ‘Holy smokes.’”
CONSEQUENCE OF DISPOSABLE LIVES
When Williams, the photographer, spotted all that plastic on the beach this spring, he was alarmed enough that he got together with Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers, and they organized a beach cleanup.
Carruthers, Williams, and a group of volunteers picked up debris from Sunset Park to Bryant Park. Another group of volunteers picked up trash from West End Beach to the Boardman River. The cleanups took place April 29, Earth Day.
Carruthers said what he found on the beach was astonishing, comparable to trash left behind during a busy National Cherry Festival day.
“I’d never seen this much trash before, other than after fireworks,” Carruthers said. “It seemed to be rolling up in the water as we were picking it up. You could see big chunks of plastic floating in the water.”
Carruthers said he thinks plastic debris — plastic cigar tips, cellophane, straws, cigarette butts, plastic caps, bottles, cups, bags — should be addressed the way Michigan addressed carbonated beverage containers with a deposit law, though he doesn’t know how that would work.
“Humans are just creating a lot more disposable things with the way we live,” he said.
Williams said he believes an inventory of what he and others found this spring proves that some of the garbage was discarded directly into the bay by fishermen, some of it appears to be broken-down debris that travelled long distances, and some of it is household waste that may have been dumped in the Boardman River.
“Its everything. It’s a lot of fishing tackle, it’s household (products), sandwich bags, Hefty bags — you know those tags that you tear off when you buy a new pair of jeans that’s got the size on it?” Williams said.
Norm Fred has helped clean up the Boardman River since 2004. When he started, his group carried out loads of trash that had accumulated over time. By returning every year, Fred’s group, Boardman River Clean Sweep, is able to keep on top of it and, moreover, by presenting recreational users with a clean watershed, Fred believes they have encouraged people on the river to pick up trash themselves because what is there looks out of place.
“People who go down the river just for recreational purposes are now picking up trash when they see it,” Fred said.
This year, Fred said, the group found so little trash before they reached the mouth of the river that their dumpsters remained empty. When they ventured out into West Bay, however, it was a different story.
Fred said the volunteers found excessive amounts of plastic trash trapped in vegetation just offshore.
“While they were out in the bay, they saw all of this plastic that had been blown out into the southeast corner, over there near the Holiday Inn,” Fred said. “They found so much trash in the bay that they couldn’t [fit] back in their boats — so they had to drag them back to the shore.”
Fred, however, said he believes that there isn’t more plastic in the bay this year compared to other years, it’s just ended up in more visible locations.
ENTER THE STRAW ACTIVISTS
Because the plastic that washed up on the shore of West Bay this spring likely got into the water a thousand different ways and from a thousand different sources, the average person who wants to help reduce the waste could look at their own use of plastic and consider making changes.
Efforts to restrict plastics in Michigan through laws have gone backwards in recent years, at least from local governments. For example, Michigan’s legislature barred localities from banning plastic bags in 2016.
Amid worry over plastic in the Great Lakes, Ganter said that law sent the wrong message.
“I was talking to somebody who voted for that ban, and he said we need a statewide or nationwide consistency, and my argument was, it starts on the local level,” Ganter said. “We’re drowning in our plastic; we’re being smothered by our plastic.”
For some, the only way to do something when faced with such an overwhelming problem is to find some specific, manageable goal to work toward.
That’s why Kathy Daniels and a group of three other women (Claudia Demarco, Kristine Drake, Linda Frank) decided to become straw activists.
They want people to think before using plastic straws, and they’ve approached restaurants to ask the owners or managers to consider plastic straw alternatives (like straws made from paper or even pasta) or to at least not automatically hand them out to customers.
Their efforts aren’t going to get rid of all of the plastic in the bay, but it’s a start that could lead to other things, Daniels said.
“The four of us just kept on saying, ‘We want climate, or something related to it,’” Daniels recalled. “Even though this isn’t per se, ‘climate,’ it is planetary.”
Daniels said that, so far, each restaurant owner they’ve approached has been receptive and listened to their ideas. Some were already considering making changes before the women knocked.
“I think sometimes climate change is so overwhelming, some people think, ‘Gee, I can’t do anything, it’s just too big,’ but that’s so untrue,” Daniels said. “Each of us has personal power in the sense that we can change our habits.”
And who knows, perhaps getting people to rethink plastic straws will cause them to refuse plastic bags at the grocery store and get them to reconsider the packaging of the products they buy altogether, she said. Daniels said she now asks for alternatives when presented with Styrofoam take-out containers.
Next up, Daniel said her group — which follows the lead of but isn’t officially affiliated with the national group The Last Plastic Straw — plans to take their message to schools and to try to reach as many fifth graders as possible with a half-hour film about the perils of plastic straws.
“There’s going to be a tipping point where everybody is going to look at plastic and say, ‘Oh this is bad. We’ve got to get rid of it,” Daniels said.