Sources of Marine Debris

Did you know that the Great Lakes are the biggest freshwater source in the world? Lake Erie is the most productive for fishing of all the Great Lakes. Your support helps make our streams clean, clear and healthy so they can support this complex ecosystem. By donating to PCS, you help us reach our goals of restoring rivers that lead to Lake Erie beaches that promote fishable and swimmable conditions for generations.

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Sources of Marine Debris

Marine Debris comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms. Those of you who have joined us for a Clean Your Streams Day or Get the Lead Out know this to be true. Everything from styrofoam coffee cups, aluminum cans, and plastic grocery bags to shopping carts, tires, and sunken boats -- it is all considered marine debris. Recently, marine debris buzz has surrounded what is referred to as microplastics. To learn more about microplastics, continue reading on this page. The most frequently found type of marine debris is in the form of plastic. We will focus our attention on plastic, but understand that anything that doesn't belong in a marine environment is considered debris.


Small Plastics (Photo: NOAA)


 Plastic Bottles (Photo: NOAA)


Microbeads (Photo: National Geographic)


Fiber Marine Debris Fibers (Photo: USM Oceanography and Ecology Lab)

At any size, plastic poses a threat to the health of humans and wildlife. At the smallest chemical level, PCBs, or chemicals used historically in paint, lubricants, fire retardants, and coolants, accumulate on plastics. PCBs were banned in the United States in 1979. Unfortunately like plastics, PCBs are chemically stable and do not easily degrade. Research has shown that PCBs have negative impacts on the health of humans and wildlife. Wildlife is also affected by similar health-related issues from the accumulation of PCBs. Top predators such as birds and mammals are especially susceptible to PCBs because of bioaccumulation, the process of passing PCBs between organisms through food chains. Chemicals are not the only thing passed through food chains. The pieces of plastic themselves are often ingested by fish and birds. When this happens, plastic can accumulate in their stomachs, causing significant problems, possibly death. Entanglement in plastic debris is another major cause of wildlife mortality from marine debris. Fishing nets, fishing lines, synthetic ropes, and plastic packaging all act as traps for unwary aquatic life.

Through our annual cleanup programs, our volunteers collect more plastic than any other type of trash from the rivers. The majority of this plastic is considered one-time-use plastic products like straws, food wrappers, or water/pop bottles. Unfortunately, plastic only accumulates -- it never really leaves the environment. Through a process known as photolysis, plastic slowly breaks down into small beads, called microplastics. Through photolysis, the sun’s energy penetrates and weakens the plastic, until it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. This can take hundreds of years! Even when plastic becomes so small we can no longer see it with a naked eye, the small beads still maintain the chemical structure of their parent material. Microplastics are small but potent, they accumulate and create problems for marine wildlife, even right here in the Great Lakes region. 

Microplastics come from many different sources. As mentioned before, plastic bottles, bags, and other items break down and eventually become microbeads. But they also hide in everyday products yoMarineDebris4u use; like your bathroom cabinet and shower. Microplastics are used in some beauty and cleansing products like face wash, toothpaste, and hand soaps. Look closely at your face wash when you put it in your hand. Do you see small blue or white beads? Those are more often than not, microplastics. Once washed down your drain, they enter the wastewater system. The plastic beads are so small that they are not filtered out of the treated water. Microplastics, like other plastics, are not biodegradable and are, therefore, near impossible to remove. To learn more about personal products that contain microbeads, check out the Beat the Microbead campaign. 



 Microplastics (Photo: NOAA)

Stone Lab scientist with cigarette butt signCigarette butts are continually one of the top items collected on Clean Your Streams Day. Whether you smoke cigarettes or not, this should concern you. Cigarettes are detrimental to environmental health for the same reasons they are to human health. Contrary to popular belief, cigarettes are not biodegradable! 95% of cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that is slow to degrade and persists in the environment for over 400 years. Unfortunately, filters are often consumed by wildlife, mistaking the filters for food. Cigarette chemicals can also leach into water and contaminate it. One cigarette butt leaching chemicals into 2 gallons of water is enough to contaminate it and negatively impact marine species. Please properly dispose of cigarette butts in trash cans, ashtrays, or specific bins for butts! Our wildlife, communities, and waterways will appreciate it! 

Partners for Clean Streams Inc. is striving for abundant open space and a high quality natural environment; adequate floodwater storage capacities and flourishing wildlife; stakeholders who take local ownership in their resources; and rivers, streams and lakes that are clean, clear and safe