Shedd team sweeps beach"Microplastics” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think about picking up trash on the beach. But this tiny pollution poses big problems for marine ecosystems, and researchers are now finding microplastics in the Great Lakes.

Microplastics, or “nurdles” for short, are another type of industrial pollution filling our waters. Nurdles are the raw material used to manufacture everything made from plastic – toothbrushes, sunglasses, water bottles, you name it. Seemingly harmless given their size (less than 5 millimeters in diameter), once they’re floating in rivers, lakes and oceans, these tiny pellets become a sea of plastic plankton.

nurdleAside from contributing to the masses of larger floating trash in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, known as the garbage gyres, microplastics are mistakenly ingested by wildlife, especially seabirds and fishes. Although a fish or bird won’t likely die from ingesting a nurdle, or even 10 nurdles, making a regular diet out of bits of plastic can lead to serious problems for the animals. Microplastics act like mini sponges, soaking up persistent toxic pollutants in the water, which fishes and other wildlife then consume. Researchers have identified microplastic gyres in the Great Lakes, specifically on Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie.

How can you help? Start by consciously reusing household items like coffee cups, grocery bags and food containers instead of buying new ones for every use. You can also volunteer to remove marine debris that does make it to our shores. Join Shedd Aquarium this Saturday, Sept. 21, at 12th Street Beach for International Coastal Cleanup Day. We’ll have fun in the sun while giving back to the lakes. To RSVP, e-mail Reid. And look out for those nurdles!

Reid Bogert, Great Lakes sustainability team