Microplastic beads: Good in home products; not so good in wildlife

Most of us encounter plastics every day. Our mobile phones are made with plastics. Much of our food is shipped in plastic. In our homes, plastics can be very beneficial. In animal’s homes, like Lake Champlain, not so much.

There are many ways plastics end up in the Lake. No matter how they get there, they’re not good for wildlife. The most obvious way plastics reach the environment is people littering. We can all help by properly disposing of waste in recycling or trash bins.

Muskie at ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain.

There’s also a hidden, microscopic source of plastics in the Lake. Some skin care products, soaps, and toothpastes contain tiny microplastic particles called microbeads. They’re added to products to improve their effectiveness. When we use these products, the microbeads go down the drain, into our wastewater filtration systems, but as tiny as they are, they pass through the filtration systems and are discharged into the Lake.

Some fish, confused by the microplastic’s resemblance to their natural food, mistakenly eat the microplastics, which become lodged in their digestive tracts. Predatory fish that eat fish that have eaten microplastics end up with higher concentrations of plastics in their bodies, an unfortunate process called biomagnification, where plastics become more concentrated in animals higher up the food chain. Some birds that eat fish end up with bellies full of microplastics. As if getting a belly of plastic wasn’t bad enough, these microplastics absorb and concentrate environmental pollutants and toxins. The elevated amounts of toxins in the animals high up on the food chain eventually leads to health issues. When we fish and consume what

we catch, we are one of the higher up the food chain animals, giving rise to guidelines to establish safe limits on fish consumption.

Thankfully, Vermont has banned plastic bags in grocery stores. But we can all do more to prevent plastic from getting into the lake. Instead of using single use plastics, buy reusable water bottles and shopping bags. Become a conscious consumer: read labels and buy products that don’t contain microbeads or other microplastics.

Less disposable plastics or microplastics in our homes will help reduce the amount of plastics in the environment and help create a healthier Lake Champlain, and healthier animals that live in and around it, including us!

Animal Care Staff coordinate environmental programs at ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. The center, which works to engage families in the wonder of nature, and care of Lake Champlain., partnered with the Burlington Free Press to publish this feature.