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Shoreline cleanup finds high number of plastic pollutants

Great Lakes Beach Sweep volunteers Saturday picked up thousands of cigarette filters, hundreds of plastic bottles and miles of plastic ribbon in their annual cleanup of the Buffalo Niagara region’s shorelines.

“For me, it’s a nice way to end the summer,” Greg Fina, of Buffalo, said at Woodlawn Beach State Park as he headed out to a beach at Wanakah. “I hate the trash and crap on the shoreline, in the water.”

If only volunteers could sweep away the billions of tiny plastic bits in the waterways, too.

For the first time, scientists discovered that concentrations of microplastics, each smaller than a ladybug, are actually up to 1,000 times higher in tributaries leading to the Great Lakes than in the water bodies themselves.

“That was somewhat surprising,” said Austin K. Baldwin, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist and lead author of a study released last week by the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The study found that the Buffalo area recorded some of the highest amounts tabulated.

Baldwin, his Geological Survey colleague Steven R. Corsi and SUNY Fredonia’s Sherri A. Mason discovered the Buffalo River had the second-highest concentration of microplastics out of 29 Great Lakes tributaries studied with 31 particles per cubic meter of water. Only the Huron River’s 32 particles was higher.

Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of these microplastics were not those microbeads that are found in toothpastes and personal-care products, and are now banned in Erie County.

They are fibers from synthetic clothing that get washed down the drain and pass through wastewater-treatment plants and out into the rivers and lakes.

Baldwin said data shows that fleece seems to be the biggest culprit.

“You wash your fleece or other synthetic clothing, and studies show thousands of little fibers go down the drain,” Baldwin said. “A lot of them are captured by the treatment plant, but a lot also make it through to the river.”

Patrick Hurley and Sue Fischbeck, of Sardinia, found larger bits of plastic, from cigar tips to golf balls at Woodlawn Beach State Park, one of the headquarters for the beach sweep. “Maybe we should have legislation requiring biodegradable tips on cigarettes and cigars,” he said.

The detritus has changed over the years, said coordinator Sharen L. Trembath. In one of the early years, 144 tires were picked up.

“Our problem now is water bottles,” said Trembath, who told volunteers, “Any plastic you find, you’re going to pick up.”

For all the plastics such as water bottles picked up by volunteers Saturday, there are some out in the environment that never make it to the beach whole.

They’re crushed out on the highways by vehicles, shredded by lawn mowers or otherwise chopped up somewhere along the way.

“The big stuff, over time, breaks down into the small stuff,” Baldwin said. “They’re fibers, fragments or broken-down pieces of larger litter.”

A lot of those remnants can find their way into streams and rivers, and exacerbate the high numbers found in Baldwin’s recent study.

The problems with plastic pollution in the water are numerous:

• Many have chemicals that mimic hormones, which disrupt the endocrine systems in aquatic life and potentially have similar risks for humans.

• Bacteria in the water can accumulate on the plastic, creating a breeding ground for toxins.

• Sunlight can chemically alter the plastic, resulting in the release of other toxins into the water.

• Synthetic beads and fibers exposed to human waste in sewage-treatment plants can be vectors for pathogens.

Kerrie L. Gallo, deputy executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said the plastics problem is hardly a local, or even a regional, problem.

“The findings with tributaries in the Great Lakes were the findings of tributaries all over the world,” Gallo said.

Although the broad in scope, the recent study’s findings, Gallo said, can be useful in narrowing the focus and identifying solutions for plastic pollution.

“It makes you think about what else is there besides microbeads that need to be addressed?” Gallo said. “You can’t address the problem unless you know the scope of it. The microbeads, and other types of plastics, each have a different solution.”

And for those volunteers including Hurley and Fischbeck, one day at the beach picking up one straw after another changed their habits.

They are now a straw-free family.

“How many times do you use straws at home? Why do we use them at restaurants?” Hurley said. “And they end up in the landfill or on beaches.”

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