Author: Zhe Cheng

Program of Study: PhD in Chemistry, Physical Sciences Division (PSD)


Description: The environmental situation of Lake Michigan is getting worse in recent years. What is polluting Lake Michigan? What is the impact of the pollution? What can we do to save Lake Michigan from pollution?

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Transcript (provided by author): 

Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2021. I’m your host, Zhe Cheng, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Physical Science Division. Today we will explore the topic of Chemicals Damaging Lake Michigan

When I first arrived in Chicago, I was surprised by the beautiful scenery Lake Michigan gifted this city. After our instructor told us that Lake Michigan is actually the drinking water supply in Chicago, I became interested in this great lake. It is amazing when you are drinking a bottle of water and look outside of the window and you can see Lake Michigan. The water you are drinking and the lake you are staring are actually the same thing which is exciting. The environmental issue is one of the most important ones related to Lake Michigan. Sadly, the situation is not good: the lake is being more and more polluted every year. Besides serving as the drinking water source, Lake Michigan also contributes to many important areas in Chicago such as fishing, tourism and transportation which can be significantly influenced by the environmental situation of Lake Michigan. Therefore, it would be meaningful to investigate what is damaging Lake Michigan and how can we save the lake from pollution.

To tackle the issue, we have to know the reason. What is polluting Lake Michigan right now? The major thing is plastic. According to the recent study by the Rochester Institute of Technology, 22 million pounds of plastic are dumped into the Great Lakes every year among which Lake Michigan turns out to be the most polluted one with 11 million pounds of them poured into. If we imagine how much of plastic are dumped, the result would be astonishing: it is of the equivalent of 100 Olympic swimming pools full of plastics. The plastics will become smaller and smaller to extremely small pieces of plastic known as microplastics. The microplastics are so small that they can pass the water filtration system and enter our body eventually which means that for every sip of water, we drink some plastics into our body. The beaches in Chicago attract tourism every year. But with all the plastics entering the lake, it is normal to see dirty and waste plastics on the beaches which could damage the tourism. The second thing is fertilizer. Fertilizer is usually full of nutrients to algae which can make use of these nutrients to grow and finally take control of the water surface. Fertilizer runoff from farming can lead to harmful impact to the fresh water which makes fresh water unable to drink. For example, Green Bay in Lake Michigan suffers from a large dead zone caused by fertilizer runoff every year according to Alliance for the great lakes.

What can we do to save Lake Michigan from pollution? So far there are already lots of attempts. Since plastic packaging is an important source of waste plastic in Lake Michigan. Controlling the use of plastic packaging would be an effective method. For example, according to RISI technology channels, McDonald’s recently launched a plan to recycle packaging in 100 percent of its restaurants by 2025 and Mondelez plans to make all of it packaging paper-based and sustainably sourced by 2020. The Alliance for the Great Lakes have a volunteer program called Adopt-a-beach where they encourage tens of thousands of people to clean the plastics off the shoreland.

Besides, government can definitely play a vital role in controlling the use of plastic packaging. In Chicago, people who buy plastic bag at grocery stores are asked to pay a 7-cent bag tax according to the city of Chicago website. Further raising the price would be a powerful way to reduce the use of plastic bags.

And for fertilizer runoff, methods such as using phosphorus-free fertilizer and using a fertilizer with slow-release granules are suggested according to wikiHow all of which can be done by an individual. Last year, researchers from University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee developed a filtration system to prevent phosphorus containing fertilizer from entering the water. Inside the filtration system is a teabag-like pouch. The teabags contain a natural material called zeolite which is engineered with metal oxides to attract phosphorus. New technologies are playing a role to reduce the harmful impact caused by improper use of fertilizer.

As a chemistry student, I think that the ultimate solution may lie in the development of new materials. For example, all the affordable solution is based on the assumption that plastics cannot be replaced by an environmentally friendly material. However, up to now, manufacturing costs of that kind of materials are very high. Therefore, developing a cheap method to synthesizing new materials that is not harmful is significant to solve the plastic issue. For doing this, government needs to put more money into encouraging research and expect a long-term environmental return.

At last, I want to say that government and organizations are not the only ones who should take responsibility for solving environmental issues of Lake Michigan. They are closely related to our everyday life and we can definitely take our own actions to contribute to the protection process. Next time when we go to supermarket, instead of buying plastic bags, we can bring our own. And next when we enjoy the views of Lake Michigan on a beach, we need to make sure that no trash should be left behind us. By doing so, we can definitely have our own contributions to save Lake Michigan.





[1]    Scott, Cheryl, and Marissa Isang. “So Great, So Fragile: Great Lakes, Lake Michigan Pollution, Microplastics, Algal Blooms Endanger Ecosystems.” ABC7 Chicago, 8 Dec. 2020,

[2]    Clark, William. “Lake Michigan Plastic Pollution Poses Ecological and Social Threats.” The Daily Northwestern, 28 Jan. 2021,

[3] Checkout Bag Tax (2737). Accessed 11 Sept. 2021.

[4]    McDonald’s to Source 100% of Its Guest Packaging from Renewable, Recycled or Certified Sources by 2025 | RISI Technology Channels. Accessed 11 Sept. 2021.

[5]    “How to Prevent Fertilizer Runoff.” WikiHow, Accessed 11 Sept. 2021.

“Keeping Pollution from Farms out of the Great Lakes.” UWM REPORT, 27 Feb. 2020,

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