Plastic waste polluting Manitoba lakes

Scientists and environmentalists are sounding the alarm about the wildlife being killed by the rising tide of plastic pollution washing up on the shores of lakes in Manitoba and elsewhere.
Scientists and environmentalists are sounding the alarm about the wildlife being killed by the rising tide of plastic pollution washing up on the shores of lakes in Manitoba and elsewhere.

"I have sampled all over Manitoba, and I have been into some really remote areas, and nowhere have I been able to go [without finding] this legacy of our plastic world," said Eva Pip, a Winnipeg-based aquatic toxicologist and professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg.

For years, Pip has documented the impact plastics have had on more than 650 provincial freshwater lakes.

Pip says she's encountered countless mammals, water fowl, even a bear, that died from eating plastic bags or getting entangled in plastic packaging, such as six-pack rings

"I personally have seen … ducks that have died because they ingested plastic bags," she said. "I've personally seen wildlife smothered in plastic shopping bags. I've seen a lot of waterfowl entangled in plastic strings and lines.

"It's heartbreaking."

Problems also exist below the water. Pip, who is also an expert in freshwater mussels, says she believes decades of discarded plastics are breaking down into so-called micro-plastics that harm fish, snails, even microscopic zooplankton.

The entire aquatic ecosystem seems to be affected, says Pip.

Pip has photographed trash illegally dumped in remote lake areas all over the province, including in Whiteshell and Nopiming Provincial Parks.

"All our waterways, all our lakes, are littered with all kinds of plastic, and many of these plastics take centuries to degrade."

Even more worrisome, says Pip, is the chemical pollution that comes from plastic. Additives like phthalates and bisphenol A can cause reproductive and carcinogenic damage in even the tiniest amounts, she said.

"What we do know is some chemicals like hormone disruptors are active at extremely low concentrations — in the parts per trillion levels," Pip said.

Remote island littered with refuse

Halfway around the world, environmentalists have spotted this eco-hazard on a tiny island in the north Pacific Ocean called the Midway Atoll. It is one of the most remote islands in the world.

University of Winnipeg biologist Eva Pip has researched the impact of plastics on Manitoba's lakes and wildlife. ((CBC))
"The entire island is covered with cigarette lighters, disposable razors, bottle caps, it's just unbelievable," says Manuel Maqueda, co-founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition.

The California-based environmentalist says the plastics are washing up from around the world. 

"The ocean is downstream and downwind from everywhere," Maqueda said.

He recently visited the Pacific island with British Columbia filmmaker Jan Vozenilek to shoot a documentary titled Journey to Midway.

The crew filmed countless Albatross birds dying because of overwhelming amounts of ingested plastics in their bellies. 

"They go and regurgitate [the plastics] back to their chicks, and they end up dying of dehydration and starvation," says Vozenilek.

The plastic that washes up on the island gets there by way of what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or trash vortex, an area in the northern Pacific Ocean where a large amount of plastics and debris has accumulated thanks to the behaviour of certain ocean currents.

The American Chemistry Council estimates that just five per cent of plastic bags and 25 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled in North America. The rest end up in landfills or the natural environment.