High levels of pelagic plastic pollution within the surface waters of Lakes Erie and Ontario

Sherri A. Mason, Juliette Daily, Ghadah Aleid, Rachel Ricotta, Morgan Smith, Katie Donnelly, Rebecca Knauff, William Edwards, Matthew J. Hoffman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


During 2012 to 2014 five expeditions collected surface water samples for plastic pollution analysis representing the first data within Lake Ontario and the first multi-year dataset for Lake Erie. Lake Ontario had the highest abundances of any Great Lake to date with an average of over 230,000 particles/km2. Though having a considerable smaller average of ~45,000 particles/km2, Lake Erie remains second only to Lake Ontario based on studies to date and averaged across all samples and years. The high levels of pelagic plastic pollution is likely owing to their position as the last two lakes in the Laurentian Great Lakes ecosystem, as well as the prominence of population centers along their shorelines. As with previous studies, most particles were found within the smallest size classification (0.355–0.999 mm; 73%), with fragments (63%) and pellets (26%) forming the dominant morphologies. The minor contribution of fibers/lines (4%) is consistent with previous Great Lakes studies, though not with studies within other environmental compartments (e.g., sediment, fish, atmospheric). This could be due to the negative buoyancy of polymeric fibrous materials, a hypothesis consistent with the dominance of the less dense polymers polyethylene (46%) and polypropylene (43%) (based on FTIR analysis). For the first time, the multiyear Lake Erie samples were compared to modeled plastic distributions and found to fit reasonably well. Using the sample data to calibrate the model we estimate that there are 475 million plastic particles, with a total mass of 6.45 metric tons, floating on the surface of Lake Erie alone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)277-288
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Great Lakes Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology


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