OSHKOSH, Wis. — Millions of pounds of plastics end up in the Great Lakes every year, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Students at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh are trying to improve the Great Lakes as part of the university’s Marine Debris Mitigation Project.

What You Need To Know

  • A $418,000 grant was awarded to UW Oshkosh to help clean up Lake Michigan

  • Students from the university clean debris from Lake Michigan tributaries like Sturgeon Bay and the Fox, Ahnapee, Kewaunee and Manitowoc rivers

  • Debris collected from waterways has included washing machines, a shotgun and a Caterpillar crane

  • Students have collected over 7,000 pounds of trash as part of the UWO's Marine Debris Mitigation Project

That’s why when UW Oshkosh student Noah Ryan takes the university’s boat on the water, it’s not for fun and sport. He’s out trying to help improve the Great Lakes.

Ryan is one student a part of the Marine Debris Mitigation Project.

“I’m passionate about this project just because I am part of the problem. But I’m also a major part of the solution,” Ryan said.

Ryan uses the skimmer boat to collect trash from tributaries connected to Lake Michigan, which include Sturgeon Bay, the Fox, Ahnapee, Kewaunee and Manitowoc rivers.

Ryan said they’ve collected some strange items.

“A giant Caterpillar crane, that was pretty incredible. That was early on in the summer. We also found a fully intact picnic table,” Ryan said.

While some trash is quite apparent, UW Oshkosh Chair and Professor of Engineering and Environmental Research Greg Kleinhleinz said other debris is almost invisible to the naked eye. 

“We use a bee bot as part of a council for Great Lakes Region Meyer project, and that goes through the beach sand and sifts that. We’re finding somewhere between eight and 12 particles per minute of plastic,” Kleinheinz said. 

Kleinheinz said plastics of all types are harming the environment. He said single-use plastics, like water bottles, are the biggest offenders.

That’s because these bottles can take up to 200 years to decompose. They break down and eventually become so small, leaving waterways vulnerable.

“Those bottles become small particles, and then even microplastics. And those end up moving up food chains. They impact the reproducibility of fish and smaller organisms and that impacts our ecosystem,” Kleinheinz said.

For Ryan, collecting even the tiniest pieces of debris helps. He asked the public to be more aware of their use of plastics.

“Be conscious of what you’re buying, and what you’re doing with the waste,” Ryan said.

UW Oshkosh students have collected more than 7,000 pounds of debris.

Researchers said the long-term effects of plastic pollution in our ecosystem are unknown.