Microplastics in ChicagoMicroplastics in Chicago: The Issue and What is to be Done

By: Jacob Regan

Microplastics are increasingly becoming a larger focal point in the discussion of pollution across the globe, including Chicago. The field of microplastic research is burgeoning. They are the subject of the worst environmental debacle in Sri Lankan history–the MV X-Press Pearl Disaster.[1] One estimate indicates that people consume a credit card’s worth of plastic a week.[2] A study found microplastics on 73% of beaches on Lake Michigan.[3] This is something with which Chicagoans and residents of Illinois must reckon.

Sources of Microplastics

Microplastics enter the water system in two ways. One way is through littering of plastic trash, which causes microbeads to disperse into wastewater.[4] The other way is through plastic pellets used in pre-production manufacturing, commonly called “nurdles”.[5] Many of these manufacturing facilities using nurdles are in the Great Lakes region, including Lake Michigan.[6] These nurdles enter the wastewater, and wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) cannot pick up these nurdles due to their small size and buoyancy.[7] Nurdles fragment over time through ultraviolet radiation, oxygen exposure, and water movement, turning into plastic grains consumed by humans and wildlife alike.[8]

Microplastics look similar to algae and microplankton, so fish mistakenly eat them.[9] Other wildlife, such as birds, can also mistake the nurdles for fish eggs and consume them, too.[10] Meanwhile, people on Lake Michigan consume microplastics through tap water and beer produced on Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes.[11] Microplastics also pose a greater risk in urban rivers due to a lower volume of water that dilute the plastics.[12] Plastic waste and production are not the only ways microplastics can enter the water in and around Chicago. Another path is through laundry, where fabrics containing microplastics pass through a load of wash.[13] Farms also use the waste from WWTPs as fertilizer, resulting in the microplastics from treatment plants being used in nutrients for our crops.[14]

Microplastics in Lake Michigan

Researchers estimate that between 2635.3 and 7027.5 tons of microplastics, with a best guess being 5270.7 tons, enter Lake Michigan annually.[15] That is over eleven million pounds of plastic a year. This is by far the largest plastic input of the Great Lakes, by a significant margin.[16] The article that reported these findings was from 2016. Considering the dramatic spike in people using single-use plastics since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of microplastics in Lake Michigan has no doubt increased. In 2021, the amount of mismanaged plastic waste was estimated to be around 11 million tons.[17]

Microplastic pollution is an issue because of what the microplastics can carry with them. Researchers found that in the North Shore Channel, WWTP effluent was a microplastic point source.[18][19] Pathogenic bacteria and inorganic materials can attach to the microplastics while traveling through the WWTP’s wastewater.[20] They then concentrate downstream, where they can enter our drinking water systems or be consumed by wildlife.[21]

Health Effects

The World Health Organization said in 2019 that there is no immediate glaring concern about consuming microplastics, but they conceded research is still very sparse.[22] WHO officials called for further analysis to determine any health effects.[23] While researchers are still unsure of their effects on human and environmental health, the picture is slowly becoming clearer. Though most plastic in our body leaves when we defecate, some plastic still remains in the form of nanoplastics.[24] Nanoplastics are smaller plastic particles within microplastics.[25] These nanoplastics can enter into our lungs, livers, and even our blood stream.[26] They may then boost fat cell accumulation and growth and disrupt energy balance, which could lead to weight gain.[27] Nanoplastics are also similar in size to hormones, and as a result, can disrupt hormone systems, further impacting weight and metabolism.[28][29]

Microplastics that pass through WWTP stimulate the growth of biofilm biomasses.[30] These biofilms attract bacteria, causing environmental damage and infections like cavities and gum disease.[31] Plastics can attract persistent organic pollutants (POPs).[32] POPs affect the reproduction capabilities and immune systems of wildlife, and can also be carcinogens.[33] Ingestion can also lead to “reduced food intake, suffocation, behavioral changes and genetic alteration” in animals.[34] Even if the research of their impact on humans is not as in-depth, the results microplastics have on animals speak for themselves. These are only a few of possible known health issues related to microplastics.


Legislators have attempted to regulate microplastics, but progress is slow. In 2021, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act to the U.S. Congress.[35] This bill seeks to proactively require the EPA’s administrator to create effluent limitations for microplastics. It seemed like Congress would pass it. Representative Alan Lowenthal of California added the act as a provision to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in July 2021.[36] Sites even reported on the bill’s inclusion.[37] However, the provision’s absence in the public law’s text is conspicuous.[38] The word “plastic” only appears in the statute once.[39] Earlier this year in May, Lowenthal reintroduced the bill into the House of Representatives.[40]

There is also the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which members of Congress have introduced to both the Senate and the House of Representatives.[41] The bill seeks to reduce use of single-use plastics, and require filters for washing machines to catch microplastics in clothing. However, these bills have also gained very little traction in Congress. The Senate has taken no action since introducing it and referring it to the Committee on Finance in March last year.[42] It has fared slightly better in the House, where the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change held hearings for it in June, sixteen months after being introduced and referred.[43]

Several states, like Virginia and Maine, have also made efforts to reduce single-use plastics and impose extended producer responsibility onto plastic producers.[44] Despite this, a lack of any federal regulation is concerning. The inability to pursue any potential legal recourse or have an attainable goal through policy leaves the path to a solution aimless.

Local Activism and Cleanup Technologies

Without proper legislation, no public protections are in place. Andrea Densham, the Senior Director of Government Affairs and Conservation Policy at the Shedd Aquarium, has taken a proactive approach to reducing aquatic microplastic pollution–a strategy that focuses on upstream capture before they enter the water system.[45] This strategy includes The Let’s Shedd Plastic Program (LSP) and the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP).[46] The Chicago Waste Strategy report echoes the sentiments espoused by Densham and the two programs.[47] ACP boasts that it has eliminated more than one million plastic bottles from its collective operations[48]–the Monterey Bay Aquarium alone eliminated all single use plastic packaging from its store.[49] The LSP program, meanwhile, collaborates with restaurants, policymakers, schools, scout groups, and others to reduce the use of single-use plastics.[50]

The University of Toronto’s Rochman Lab found that using a Lint LUV-R filter reduces the amount of microplastic fibers released in the washing machine by about 87%.[51] One promising solution comes from Northwestern University’s Atomic and Nanoscale Characterization Experimental Center (NUANCE), led by Dr. Vinayak Dravid. Dravid and his team created a nanoparticle coating for sponges that attracts both microplastics and the nanoplastic inside them.[52] There are many upsides to this approach: the coating has a 90% sequestration rate, sponges are both common and affordable, and reusing sponges like this keeps them from out of the landfills.[53]

Insufficient Solutions

These solutions alone may not be enough. Despite the reduction in single use plastics, the plastic in the lake and rivers remain.[54] Additionally, the elimination of some single use plastics without a ready replacement causes trouble. Researchers say that in addition to not doing much on its own, banning plastic straws in all instances would cause people with certain disabilities to struggle with drinking liquids outside their home.[55] We must also make sure that these solutions do not harm the lake’s biodiversity.[56]

This is not a quick-fix issue. It will require collective effort and vision from citizens and the government to reverse the damage already done and ensure no further damage occurs.

[1] The Problem, page on THE GREAT NURDLE HUNT, https://www.nurdlehunt.org.uk/the-problem.html (last visited Oct. 20, 2022).

[2] Reset with Sasha Ann-Simons: Efforts to Counter Warming Temperatures, Microplastics in Lake Michigan, WBEZ at 1:23 (Jul. 13, 2022, 5:25 P.M.), https://www.wbez.org/stories/microplastics-in-lake-michigan/c75bed71-83a4-4c19-9fe7-c261995236ec.

[3] Patricia L. Corcoran et al., A Comprehensive Investigation of Industrial Plastic Pellets on Beaches Across the Laurentian Great Lakes and the Factors Governing Their Distribution, 747 SCI. OF THE  TOTAL ENV’T 141227, 141232 (2020).

[4] Amanda McCormick et al., Microplastic is an Abundant and Distinct Microbial Habit in an Urban River, ENV’T SCI. & TECH., 11863, 11864 (Oct. 6, 2014).

[5] Paul Caine, Great Lakes Pollution Puts Plastic in All of Us, WTTW (Aug. 3, 2021, 9:28 P.M.), https://news.wttw.com/2021/08/03/great-lakes-pollution-puts-plastic-all-us.

[6] Id.

[7] McCormick, supra note 4, at 11863.

[8] The Problem, supra note 1.

[9] Karyn Simpson, The Tiniest Terror: The Unknown Threats Behind Microplastics, and How Researchers are Trying to Stop Them, MEDILL REP. CHI.: NW. U. (Spring 2019), https://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/the-tiniest-terror-the-unknown-threats-behind-microplastics-and-how-researchers-are-trying-to-stop-them/.

[10] The Problem, supra note 1.

[11] Id.

[12] McCormick, supra note 4, at 11864.

[13] Simpson, supra note 9.

[14] Id.

[15] Matthew J. Hoffman et al., Inventory and Transport of Plastic Debris in the Laurentian Great Lakes, 115 MARINE POLLUTION BULLETIN 273, 280 (Feb. 15, 2017).

[16] Id.

[17] Yiming Peng et al., Plastic Waste Release Caused by COVID-19 and Its Fate in the Global Ocean, 118 PNAS, 1, 4 (Nov. 8, 2021).

[18] McCormick, supra note 4 at 11867.

[19] A point source is “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance… from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1362(14).

[20] McCormick, supra note 4 at 11869.

[21] Id.

[22] Jamey Keaton et al., UN: Don’t Worry About Drinking Microplastics in Water, NBC CHICAGO (August 21, 2019), https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/national-international/un-drinking-microplastics-water/127236/.

[23] Id.

[24] David Richards, Microplastics May Increase Risk for Obesity, NAT’L  INST. OF ENV’T HEALTH SCI.: GLOB. ENV’T HEALTH NEWSLETTER under Research Spotlight tab (June 2022),


[25] Reset with Sasha Ann-Simons: How a Sponge Could Help Clean Up Microplastics in Chicago and the Great Lakes, WBEZ at 3:45 (May 10, 2022, 6:00 A.M.), https://www.wbez.org/stories/sponges-could-help-remove-pollutants-from-water/f6879aa4-7e75-4976-ab77-cf096eab0602.

[26] Richards, supra note 24.

[27] Id.

[28] Reset with Sasha Ann-Simons, supra note 25, at 3:45.

[29] Richards, supra note 24.

[30] McCormick, supra note 4 at 11869.

[31] J.W. Costerton et al., Bacterial Biofilms: A Common Cause of Persistent Infections, 284 SCI. 1318, 1318-19, (May 21, 1999).

[32] The Problem, supra note 1.

[33] Kevin Jones, Persistent organic pollutants (POPs): State of the Science, 100 ENV’T POLLUTION 209, 210-211 (1999).

[34] Inside the Clean Seas Campaign Against Microplastics, UNITED NATIONS ENV’T PROGRAMME, (Feb. 17 2022), https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/inside-clean-seas-campaign-against-microplastics.

[35] Caine, supra note 5.

[36] Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, H.R.3684, 117th Cong. § 12028 (as placed on Senate calendar, Jul. 13, 2021).

[37] Katie Day, House Passes Landmark Bill to Fund Clean Water and Stop Plastic Pellet Pollution, SURFRIDER FOUNDATION (Jul. 1, 2021), https://www.surfrider.org/coastal-blog/entry/house-passes-landmark-bill-to-fund-clean-water-and-stop-plastic-pellet-pollution.

[38] Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, supra note 36 (as passed into public law on Nov. 15, 2021).

[39] Id.

[40] Press Release, Congressman Alan Lowenthal, Congressman Lowenthal Introduces Legislation To Prevent Discharge Of Plastic Pellets Into Water Systems, Rivers, Oceans (May 19, 2022), https://lowenthal.house.gov/media/press-releases/congressman-lowenthal-introduces-legislation-prevent-discharge-plastic-pellets.

[41] S.984 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021, S.984, 117th Cong. (2021), http://www.congress.gov/; H.R.2238 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021, H.R.2238, 117th Cong. (2022), http://www.congress.gov/.

[42] All Info – S.984 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021, S.984, 117th Cong. (2021), http://www.congress.gov/.

[43] Actions – H.R.2238 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021, H.R.2238, 117th Cong. (2022), http://www.congress.gov/.

[44] Andrea Densham, Andrea Densham: Hold Plastic Producers Responsible ‘for the Pollution They Create’, CRAIN’S  DETROIT BUSINESS (Jul. 29, 2021, 5:29 P.M.), https://www.crainsdetroit.com/crains-forum/andrea-densham-hold-plastic-producers-responsible-pollution-they-create.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] CITY OF CHI, WASTE STRATEGY: MATERIALS MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES, at 4, 6 (Jul. 2021), https://www.chicago.gov/content/dam/city/progs/env/Chicago-Waste-Strategy/Chicago-Waste-Strategy-Materials-Management-Strategies-7.12.21.pdf.

[48] Densham, supra note 44.


[50] Let’s Shedd Plastic, SHEDD AQUARIUM (last visited Oct. 20, 2022), https://www.sheddaquarium.org/care-and-conservation/take-action-for-animals/lets-shedd-plastic.

[51] Simpson, supra note 9.

[52] Reset with Sasha Ann-Simons, supra note 25, at 1:41, 3:04, 3:55.

[53] Id. at 3:30, 4:15, 8:20.

[54] Lois Yoksoulian, Microplastic Contamination Found in Common Source of Groundwater, ILL. NEWS BUREAU: U. OF ILL. URBANA-CHAMPAIGN (Jan. 25, 2019, 6:30 A.M.), https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/743561.

[55] Simpson, supra note 9.

[56] Reset with Sasha Ann-Simons, supra note 25, at 11:45.