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Plastic particles were recently discovered in tap water—and even beer made with water—from the Great Lakes.

By Marisa Spyker

It won’t come as a surprise to hear that plastic is no friend to the oceans. Every year, around 8 million tons of it winds up in our seas, threatening wildlife and accumulating in giant patches of trash that are nearly impossible to clean up.

But plastics don’t discriminate between bodies of water. And, while lakes and rivers were once thought of simply as plastic superhighways to the sea, new evidence suggests that plastics are causing problems as much for lakes as they are for the oceans. A recent study analyzing tap water—and even beer—sourced from the Great Lakes found traces of microplastic in the samples.

The findings point to a ubiquity of plastics in the Lakes, likely to the same tune as the oceans. Using calculations of how much plastic enters the water per person in coastal regions, a recent study estimated that around 10,000 tons of plastic finds its way into the Great Lakes annually. But where does it all go?

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According to the study, lake plastic acts quite a bit differently than ocean plastic. While ocean plastic tends to accumulate in gyres—or circular ocean currents formed by wind patterns and forces from the Earth’s rotation—any accumulation of lake plastic seems to be broken up by strong winds. This means that, while you won’t find a Great Lakes Garbage Patch, you will find lots of plastic trash scattered along the Great Lakes shorelines—or mixed in with sediment at the bottom of the lake.

The jury is still out as to which option has the potential to cause more harm. But, by knowing more about how plastic behaves--and which types of plastic are most detrimental to the environment--we can then make more informed decisions on how to approach plastic cleanup and prevention, say the researchers.