Plastic debris in the Laurentian Great Lakes: A review

Pollution by plastic debris is an increasing environmental concern in the Laurentian Great Lakes where it affects open-water, shoreline, and benthic environments. Open-water surveys reveal that, in certain areas of the Great Lakes, surface water densities of plastics are as high as those reported for areas of litter accumulation within oceanic gyres. Data from volunteer beach cleanups show that typically more than 80% of anthropogenic litter along the shorelines of the Great Lakes is comprised of plastics. The distribution of plastics in bottom sediments of the Great Lakes is essentially unknown. Sources of plastic debris to the Great Lakes include microplastic beads from consumer products, pellets from the plastic manufacturing industry, and waste from beach-goers, shipping, and fishing activities. Many plastics degrade slowly in the environment and may have long-term adverse ecological and economic impacts, including the dispersal of persistent organic pollutants. Plans to combat and curtail plastic debris pollution in the Great Lakes will come at a significant economic cost, likely in excess of $400 million annually. Here, we review the current state of knowledge on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, identify knowledge gaps, and suggest future research directions.

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