Opinion

The Scariest Monster in Lake Michigan is Plastic

Adrian Nevarez | The PhoenixThe beautiful waters of Lake Michigan support the well-being of millions of people in the greater Chicago area. It provides drinking water and job opportunities for many, yet every year it's threatened by human-caused plastic pollution and industry surrounding the lake.

Chicago’s location on the banks of Lake Michigan is part of what makes it a beautiful city. The views of sparkling blue water reflecting off the windows of buildings lining Lake Shore Drive help define the Midwestern metropolis. Today, however, Lake Michigan is filling with plastic. Garbage and sick marine life are becoming prominent features of the once pristine Chicago shoreline. If effective action by residents, corporations and local government isn’t taken soon, the Loyola lakefront may suffer irreparable damage.

The second-largest freshwater body in the world, Lake Michigan is the source of drinking water for roughly 6.6 million people in the Chicago area, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. It’s Illinois’ largest recreational resource and a great economic asset for the state, generating $3.2 billion annually and supporting 33,000 jobs, according to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Despite this, Lake Michigan is the most polluted of the Great Lakes, according to estimates by the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Last year, nearly 22 million pounds of plastic were dumped into the Great Lakes — over half of which were dumped into Lake Michigan — according to estimates by RIT. Much of the plastic comes from littering or improper waste disposal. Nearly 80 percent of all litter along Chicago beaches is plastic waste, according to RIT’s research.

Over time, plastic in the lake breaks down into extremely small pieces of plastic debris known as microplastics. Much of the seafood consumed in the city is contaminated by such microplastics, and so is much of the public water supply. 

The health impacts of consuming microplastics are mostly unknown at this point, according to the World Health Organization.

Daunting as it may be, the plastic problem in Lake Michigan is one residents have the ability to curb. Properly disposing waste while spending a nice day on the beach, or reducing the amount of plastic-packaged products you purchase are a couple of ways to reduce pollution. Another possible approach is to call on local government to make stricter regulations regarding plastic pollution levels and facilitate clean-ups.

There are currently no regulations by the Chicago Department of Water Management for the testing microplastics in water, and there are no systems in place to clean any preexisting plastic pollution, according to reports by the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago Environmental Health and Safety Program has a budget of more than $45 million, according to the city’s budget overview for 2020. The city has no particular focus on plastic pollution, though a sustainability committee has been created, according to the overview.

Local corporations also play a big role in rehabilitating the health of the lake. Companies that produce items with plastic have the ability to turn the tide on the issue. Mondelez International — which owns brands such as Ritz Crackers and Oreo — and McDonald’s are two of the bigger plastic producers based in Chicago, according to eco-business, a sustainable development business headquartered in Singapore. 

Courtesy of Flickr The residents of the Chicago area have the power to slow plastic pollution by properly disposing of their waste.

Both companies have opportunities to make their agendas more plastic-friendly. McDonald’s recently launched a plan to recycle packaging in 100 percent of its restaurants by 2025, according to its corporate website. Similarly, Mondelez plans to make all of its packaging paper-based and sustainably sourced by 2020, according to a 2018 company press release. Local consumers should hold these companies responsible for following up on new initiatives and take advantage of any plastic-free opportunities.

Beyond altruistic motives, the efforts to clean and restore Lake Michigan should come from a place of necessity for Chicago businesses. The city has already seen a steep decline in population over the last 50 years, and it can’t afford to lose out on a multi-billion-dollar industry at the hands of an avoidable problem. 

Without Lake Michigan, Chicago as a national powerhouse would fail to exist in the first place. It’s part of what defines the city and has gifted us so much as a natural resource.

 Each year action isn’t taken, millions of pounds of plastic end up in the lake and more plastic enter into the water supply. In the next year and a half there will be 15 million more pounds of plastic in the lake — the equivalent to the weight of 167,737 airplanes in the water — according to RIT.

This level of pollution is enough to decimate fish populations and possibly endanger Chicago’s tourism industry in such a short time. Everyone needs water, regardless of circumstances — it’s one of the few things that binds humanity. Some cooperation in helping the waterways today can go along way not just for you, but for others and for the city. 

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