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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Beach Trash: Where Lake Michigan’s Litter Originates

Almost every day since last June, Marla Schmidt has walked along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Bay View. But she’s not lounging around enjoying the beach — she’s picking up trash. 

She regularly gathers plastic and other garbage that washes up on the shore, filling her bucket on nearly every trip. Marla documents her finds on her Facebook page, Catch of the Day MKE. With so much trash on the beach, Marla wanted to find out:

“I’m curious where it’s all coming from… Do you have any idea where it could possibly be coming from or how so much if it is getting into the water to begin with?”

This week on Bubbler Talk — our series that allows you to ask WUWM questions about Milwaukee — we headed to the beach with Marla to talk trash with Todd Brennan, a senior policy manager with the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Types Of Trash

To get a firsthand idea of what’s washing up on the shores of Lake Michigan, we took a walk along Marla’s stretch of the beach.

In just one debris pile, we found: shotgun wadding, a syringe and needle, cigar tips, bottle caps, floss, a fake plant, and a hair tie. The list goes on.

Credit Gabrielle Powell
While exploring the beach, we found an inflatable buoy from the Milwaukee air show that washed ashore. A little too big for Marla Schmidt's bucket, but she pulls it in and we take care of it nonetheless.

“Cigar tips are actually in thetop 10 list of ‘most found’ items on the beaches. About 10 years ago, they came onto the top 10 list, and they never left,” says Todd.

In fact, there are so many plastic cigar tips that Marla ends up ignoring cigarette butts. But Todd reminded us that, even though they may look like paper, they’re not.

Credit Gabrielle Powell
Marla Schmidt's collection of cigar tips from cleaning the beaches this summer.

“Cigarettes are actually acetate, so that is plastic, and there’s lots of chemicals that are located inside. I think that’s a problem people don’t realize. They think it’s cotton, that it’s biodegradable — it’s not,” he says.

READ: Discarded Cigarette Butts: More Than An Annoying Eyesore in Milwaukee

According to Todd, about 85 percent of Great Lakes beach litter is plastic, and we certainly found our fair share on the beach. “There’s [sic] probably thousands of pieces of plastic in a two meter-squared spot,” he says.

Where It Originates

Now to answer Marla’s question: where does the trash come from?

“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” Todd says. A significant portion of ocean waste comes from ships. But, he says, the waste on Lake Michigan’s shores comes mostly from land activity.

He says, “It’s a shoreline issue … which is just, sort of, our issue, meaning the people, as we conduct ourselves in the city."

So, the responsibility is on us, as citizens and stewards of the Lake, to keep the beaches clean. But Marla says beach cleanups won’t solve everything.

Credit Gabrielle Powell
Marla Schmidt cleans up garbage on a beach along Lake Michigan.

“Having beach cleanups … I think they’re great, but it’s a Band-Aid,” she says. “I could do this job 24/7. It’ll never stop coming, and so that’s what’s kind of frustrating. I don’t want there to have to be so many beach cleanups.”

And that’s not hyperbole. A 2017 study by the Rochester Institute of Technology estimates that about 21.8 million pounds of trash enter the Great Lakes each year. About 10 million pounds end up in Lake Michigan. That's about 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic water bottles.

Impact Of Waste

Garbage is an eyesore, sure, but what’s the impact of all that waste?

“Plastic never goes away, it just gets smaller and smaller," Todd says. "It gets degraded by the sun, which makes it even more insidious because it becomes part of the food web. It’s part of our water system."

Of potentially greater concern than the plastics themselves, though, are persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. They include pesticides, industrial chemicals, and other byproducts that have been recognized as having adverse effects on humans and the ecosystem.

The concern, Todd says, is that these chemicals could adhere to plastics and end up in the stomachs of wildlife, or humans. Although research is still ongoing about the consequences of these chemicals and micro plastics in general, he says the concern is legitimate.

Credit Marla Schmidt/CatchofthedayMKE/Facebook
Marla Schmidt finds a lot of plastic on a Bay View beach along Lake Michigan.

“Wildlife need [water] and so do we. We survive on this water,” he says.

So, while beach cleanups are important, Marla and organizations like Alliance for the Great Lakes want to address the root of the problem by changing consumer behavior to prevent the plastic from getting to the beach in the first place.

Through her own work, Marla helps people become more sustainable in their consumption, and seeks to support businesses making an effort toward sustainable practices.

Take, for example, the recent surge in plastic straw bans across the country. Here in Milwaukee, plastic straws are not banned, but many businesses now offer paper straws or only provide plastic straws upon request. Oshkosh-based paper company Hoffmaster recently acquired the only paper straw company, Aardvark. 

Credit Marla Schmidt/CatchofthedayMKE/Facebook
Plastic straws Marla Schmidt found while picking up trash on a Lake Michigan beach.

Although straws may seem like an insignificant part of the 21.8 million pounds of annual trash accumulation in Lake Michigan, Marla says it makes a difference. “It’s only one straw … said 1 billion people,” she says.

Much of the plastic we found on the beach comes from convenience items like plastic water bottles, utensils, and other single-use items. Marla and Todd believe that people must change their behavior, but Todd says, “There’s other ways that we can find this balance between convenience and impact.”

No matter where beach trash comes from, we know who it comes from. We share the responsibility and we must share in the solution as well, says Marla.

She says, “People have asked me, ‘What’s the strangest thing that you’ve seen on the beach?’…It’s all strange to me … there shouldn’t be plastic on our beach, especially to the extent that it is.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 21.8 million pounds of trash end up in Lake Michigan every year. That number is actually the total for all of the Great Lakes. The story has been updated.

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