It’s been about a month since research showing that southern Lake Michigan is littered with synthetic microfibers hit news stands. The results set Lake Michigan apart from the other lakes and raise questions about the impact of these fibers on the food web. Perhaps more importantly, they suggest that understanding and combating plastic pollution in the lakes may be even harder than expected. 

From the Chicago Tribune:

Reducing or eliminating plastic microfibers could prove to be a tougher goal to achieve, in part because they are found in a much wider variety of consumer goods. A single fleece jacket can shed 1,900 fibers every time it’s washed, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.  

Short of abandoning synthetic fabrics and returning to natural materials such as cotton and wool, it is unclear what can be done to reduce the constant flow of microfibers into the environment. Some researchers have suggested that manufacturers study whether filters could be added to washing machines, similar to the lint traps in clothes dryers. 

Conventional sewage treatment screens out large pieces of trash and relies on microorganisms to break down bacteria. The century-old process helped eradicate cholera and other waterborne diseases in the U.S. but leaves nonorganic plastic untouched. Microfibers and microbeads end up floating along with treated wastewater pumped into rivers and lakes.  

While most of the Chicago area’s wastewater flows toward the Mississippi River instead of into Lake Michigan, plenty of other cities discharge treated sewage into the Great Lakes. Because plastic pollution doesn’t break down, what scientists are finding represents the steady accumulation of waste during the past 60 years.  

Plastics manufacturers said they merely make the raw materials and that it is up to clothing-makers or water treatment officials to find ways to reduce pollution. Read more

Read more about the 2013 survey of southern Lake Michigan and its early results in our latest Helm