Prove your humanity

A new report by the non-partisan, non-profit group Alliance for the Great Lakes found that 86 percent of litter collected on Great Lakes beaches contains plastics.

Listen to Julie Grant discuss the report:


The group has been running volunteer beach clean-ups since the early 1990s and has organized over 14,000 since 2003. The report analyzes 20 years of litter data collected along the shores of all eight Great Lakes states.

Volunteers for their Adopt-a-Beach program get out on beaches and pick up all the trash they find. 

A man holds a blue bucket filled with cans, bottle and other trash picked up at beach clean up.

Weighing collected litter at a cleanup at Montrose Beach in Chicago in 2019. Photo: Lloyd DeGrane, courtesy of Alliance for the Great Lakes

A close up of hands wearing blue gloves, they are holding trash picked up from a beach along the Great Lakes, including food wrappers and plastic cigar pieces

Pieces of plastic found on the shoreline of the Great Lakes at an Adopt-a-Beach cleanup. Photo: Lloyd DeGrane, courtesy of Alliance for the Great Lakes

“They’re also collecting really valuable data about what they’re finding on the beach,”  said Olivia Reda, Alliance volunteer engagement manager. “So when they’re out there with their group, they’re tallying how many pieces of different types of litter items they’re finding.” 

The data is compiled into the group’s Great Lakes litter database, and most of what they found was single-use plastic. 

“A lot of smoking-related items, food-related items, food wrappers, straws,” Reda said, Things that are used once and then end up sometimes on the beach.” 

The top type of trash collected between 2003 and 2013 was cigarette butts, which also contain plastics. About ten years ago, the Alliance started a more specific category for pieces smaller than 2.5 centimeters. Now tiny plastic pieces are the most collected items.

“It’s not going away, it’s just getting smaller,” Reda said. “Sometimes we’re finding it as a plastic water bottle or container, but then that’s going to break down into smaller pieces and end up as those tiny plastic pieces that we also find.” 

Over the last ten years, the report also found styrofoam, another plastic material, as the third most found type of beach litter.

“There’s all kinds of things that make it [styrofoam] problematic, like [it can] blow away or break up into smaller and smaller pieces,” Reda said. 

She noted that the smaller the pieces get, the harder they are to clean up, which leads to additional concerns.

“The small pieces are dangerous in and of themselves, but also can go on to become microplastics and end up in drinking water,” she said. “ And the Great Lakes are a source of drinking water for 40 million people. So a particularly alarming piece of this is the public health aspect.”

The Alliance hopes its report raises awareness and gets people to think twice before using single-use plastics. But it advocates action beyond individual consumer choices and beach cleanups.

“As much as this work is making a difference, we need more of a systemic approach to tackle plastic pollution and the impact it’s having on the environment, on communities, public health, and wildlife,” Reda said. 

The report encourages people to get behind laws and policies that reduce single-use plastics and result in less pollution, like a bill in Minnesota that Alliance for the Great Lakes is supporting. It would hold corporations that make single-use plastic containers responsible when their trash winds up on the beaches.