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Free lecture to teach public about plastic pollution in Lake Erie and how to help

Lake Erie Microplastics
Lake Erie water
Jill Bartolotta
Cathi Lehn
Posted at 6:42 PM, Jan 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-24 20:16:58-05

CLEVELAND — Let’s start with an exercise. Stop for a moment and imagine walking through your day. Try to notice all the places you find plastic as you go about your life. From morning to night, the list can get pretty out of hand.

“Plastic is everywhere,” Ohio Sea Grant Educator Jill Bartolotto told News 5. “We’re drinking these plastics every day.” Ohio Sea Grant is part of a national program aimed at cleaning up our coasts. Bartolotta’s focus is on plastic pollution in Lake Erie. On January 29, she’s explaining “The Problem With Plastic Pollution” as part of the Learning For Life lecture series hosted by Cuyahoga Community College.

Bartolotta is part of a network of people and organizations working on a plan to keep plastic out of our lake. Ohio Sea Grant and the City of Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability were both partners on a new ‘2020 Great Lakes Marine Debris Action Plan’ released by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration this week.

Cathi Lehn, the Sustainable Cleveland Manager, warns: “The plastic that we’re now living with is not going away, so the solution is to stop it at its source.”

Plastic pollution harms wildlife that can mistake plastic for food

That means anyone can contribute. We’re the ones putting plastics in the lake that you’d probably never think of. Bartolotta has thought of it though. “When you wash your synthetic clothes like fleece, your nylon yoga pants, those will all shed plastic fibers,” she warned. Yes, the water from your washing machine does go through wastewater treatment, but Bartolotta says about 1% of those microplastics still make their way to the lake. Small as it may seem, it really adds up when millions of gallons of water are being filtered each day.

Microplastics are plastics that are smaller than 5mm, or about the size of a pencil eraser.

There’s good news. Making a simple change can have an exponential impact. “Start with one area of your life,” Bartolotta recommends. “Start with grocery shopping.” Before you close this story, I know, I KNOW you’ve heard so much about reusable grocery bags lately. They’re banned in one place, they’re unbanned in some places, there’s talk of a ban on bans. It’s been a lot. But guess what?

“No matter what the laws are in your municipality, what we’re educating about is you can still bring a reusable bag,” Lehn explained. So if the bag bans have you confused about when and where you’ll need a reusable bag, you can make your life so much simpler and bring a reusable bag to the grocery store regardless.

Switching to reusable grocery bags is a simple first step in reducing plastic pollution

Maybe you’re a shopper who’s been hauling around your reusable bags for months already. Why stop there? You can level up. Bartolotta suggests picking a room. Have you ever taken a long look around your bathroom with plastic in mind?

Most bath products are sold in plastic containers

“If you think about how many plastic products are in your bathroom, it’s a ton,” Bartolotta told News 5. Your shampoo, conditioner, face wash and toothpaste are all packaged in plastic containers. Even your toothbrush is plastic. “There’s things out there that are called shampoo and conditioning bars,” Bartolotta suggests. “Even if you’re not comfortable with that, switch to a bar of soap.”

The important thing to remember is that you have options. And the stakes are high. Bartolotta said right now research is still being done on how all the plastic in our lake and our drinking water impacts human health, but we already know how it affects smaller organisms like plankton and fish: “We know the chemicals in plastics are cancer-causing and can disrupt the hormone system,” Bartolotta warned. If that concerns you, it’s time to start thinking about your options. Here are some simple steps to get you started on the road to phasing out plastic.

If we all start taking baby steps together, the benefits to our lake, our health and our communities would be immeasurable.

This story is part of A Better Land, an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here.