Tons of plastic waste enters the Great Lakes every year. So where does it end up?

The Chicago shore of Lake Michigan. Image: J. Crocker/Wikimedia Commons.

Awareness is rising worldwide about the scourge of ocean plastic pollution, from Earth Day 2018 events to the cover of National Geographic magazine. But few people realise that similar concentrations of plastic pollution are accumulating in lakes and rivers. One recent study found microplastic particles – fragments measuring less then five millimeters – in globally sourced tap water and beer brewed with water from the Great Lakes.

According to recent estimates, over 8m tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. Using that study’s calculations of how much plastic pollution per person enters the water in coastal regions, one of us (Matthew Hoffman) has estimated that around 10,000 tons of plastic enter the Great Lakes annually. Now we are analysing where it accumulates and how it may affect aquatic life.

No garbage patches, but lots of scrap on beaches

Plastic enters the Great Lakes in many ways. People on the shore and on boats throw litter in the water. Microplastic pollution also comes from wastewater treatment plants, stormwater and agricultural runoff. Some plastic fibres become airborne – possibly from clothing or building materials weathering outdoors – and are probably deposited into the lakes directly from the air.

Sampling natural water bodies for plastic particles is time-consuming and can be done on only a small fraction of any given river or lake. To augment actual sampling, researchers can use computational models to map how plastic pollution will move once it enters the water. In the ocean, these models show how plastic accumulates in particular locations around the globe, including the Arctic.

When plastic pollution was initially found in the Great Lakes, many observers feared that it could accumulate in large floating garbage patches, like those created by ocean currents. However, when we used our computational models to predict how plastic pollution would move around in the surface waters of Lake Erie, we found that temporary accumulation regions formed but did not persist as they do in the ocean. In Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes, strong winds break up the accumulation regions.

Three-dimensional transport simulations of particle movement in Lake Erie, based on water current models developed by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Subsequent simulations have also found no evidence for a Great Lakes garbage patch. Initially this seems like good news. But we know that a lot of plastic is entering the lakes. If it is not accumulating at their centers, where is it?

Using our models, we created maps that predict the average surface distribution of Great Lakes plastic pollution. They show that most of it ends up closer to shore. This helps to explain why so much plastic is found on Great Lakes beaches: in 2017 alone, volunteers with the Alliance for the Great Lakes collected more than 16 tons of plastic at beach cleanups. If more plastic is ending up near shore, where more wildlife is located and where we obtain our drinking water, is that really a better outcome than a garbage patch?

Average density of simulated particles in the Great Lakes from 2009-14. Notice that there are no patches in the middle of the Lakes, but more of the particles are concentrated near the shores. Image: Matthew Hoffman/creative commons.

Searching for missing plastic

We estimate that over four tons of microplastic are floating in Lake Erie. This figure is only a small fraction of the approximately 2,500 tons of plastic that we estimate enter the Lake each year. Similarly, researchers have found that their estimates of how much plastic is floating at the ocean’s surface account for only around 1 per cent of estimated input. Plastic pollution has adverse effects on many organisms, and to predict which ecosystems and organisms are most affected, it is essential to understand where it is going.

We have begun using more advanced computer models to map the three-dimensional distribution of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Assuming that plastic simply moves with currents, we see that a large proportion of it is predicted to sink to lake bottoms. Mapping plastic pollution this way begins to shed light on exposure risks for different species, based on where in the lake they live.

According to our initial simulations, much of the plastic is expected to sink. This prediction is supported by sediment samples collected from the bottom of the Great Lakes, which can contain high concentrations of plastic.

Three-dimensional transport simulation in Lake Erie. Particle color represents depth below the water surface: the bluer the particle, the deeper it is.

In a real lake, plastic does not just move with the current. It also can float or sink, based on its size and density. As a particle floats and is “weathered” by sun and waves, breaks into smaller particles, and becomes colonised by bacteria and other microorganisms, its ability to sink will change.

Better understanding of the processes that affect plastic transport will enable us to generate more accurate models of how it moves through the water. In addition, we know little so far about how plastic is removed from the water as it lands on the bottom or the beach, or is ingested by organisms.


Prediction informs prevention

Developing a complete picture of how plastic pollution travels through waterways, and which habitats are most at risk, is crucial for conceiving and testing possible solutions. If we can accurately track different types of plastic pollution after they enter the water, we can focus on the types that end up in sensitive habitats and predict their ultimate fate. The Conversation

Of course, preventing plastic from entering our waterways in the first place is the best way to eliminate the problem. But by determining which plastics are more toxic and also more likely to come into contact with sensitive organisms, or end up in our water supply, we can target the “worst of the worst”.

With this information, government agencies and conservation groups can develop specific community education programmes, target cleanup efforts and work with industries to develop alternatives to products that contain these materials.

Matthew J. Hoffman, Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences, Rochester Institute of Technology and Christy Tyler, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, Rochester Institute of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.