Underwater Photographer Reveals Plastic Pollution in Great Lakes

Chris Roxburgh's acclaimed shipwreck photos show plastic is a scourge everywhere.

Chris Roxburgh, scuba diver in Great Lakes

Chris Roxburgh

Chris Roxburgh has a unique idea of fun. A master electrician by trade, he dons scuba diving gear in his off-hours and explores the deep, dark depths of the Great Lakes (even in the winter!) near his home in Traverse City, Michigan. 

Roxburgh's social media presence has garnered much attention of late, thanks to his spectacular photos of shipwrecks. Outside reports that he appeared on the History Channel’s "Cities of the Underworld" earlier this fall to "share this wreck beauty with the world." 

Unfortunately, Roxburgh's explorations have revealed another, darker side of the underwater world. Plastic pollution that is rampant on land has, not surprisingly, made its way into the Great Lakes. These five famous lakes—Michigan, Huron, Superior, Erie, and Ontario—make up 21% of the world's fresh water, but they also absorb an estimated 22 million pounds of plastic per year, half of which is said to enter Lake Michigan alone.

Chris Roxburgh explores a shipwreck in the Great Lakes

Chris Roxburgh

Treehugger asked Roxburgh about his work and the prevalence of plastic trash. He said that he's been cleaning local shorelines and exploring underwater for most of his life, but since starting to scuba dive five years ago, he has received tremendous national attention.

"I am a technical diver and underwater photographer that specializes in historical shipwreck photography," he told Treehugger. "I frequently dive in [Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior], documenting shipwrecks with videography and photography, though primarily in Lake Michigan for its great visibility from cold water.

"After quickly getting a large following from my news articles and shipwreck photography, I used my social media platform to share my photos of plastic cleanups underwater to create awareness. This had an impact with many people sharing their stories of ... cleaning up shorelines and areas affected by plastic pollution."

food wrapper at bottom of Lake Michigan

Chris Roxburgh

Treehugger asked if he sees different patterns of trash in different locations, and Roxburgh said yes. "I notice an increase of pollution in the water after festivals in certain coastal cities, and in places that have heavy tourism. [Those] beaches typically have much higher volumes of trash in the water."

He has seen the amount of plastic trash in both local areas and other dive destinations increase over the years. When asked if he collects it, Roxburgh explained, "I usually have a mesh bag for trash if we encounter it on our dives. I will get as much as I can without changing my dive plan or making the dive unsafe."

plastic Minnie Mouse children's toy found at bottom of Lake Michigan

Chris Roxburgh

Ultimately, he hopes that his pictures of waste in the lowest levels of these precious, beautiful lakes will prompt people to change their consumption (and disposal) habits. Roxburgh would like to see more people cleaning shorelines, as this would mean less garbage reaching the water, where it is far harder to remove. 

"Every person on this globe should be responsible for doing something to help keep our waters clean," he urged. "Practice Leave No Trace principles combined with recycling, and take part in small group or single-person cleanups of your local areas. We can all do our part and change the impact plastic pollution is having in our freshwater lakes."

plastic glove waste at bottom of Lake Michigan

Chris Roxburgh

Roxburgh's work stands out because most discussion about plastic pollution these days centers around oceans and high-profile gyres like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But the fact is that plastic also contaminates the freshwater lakes and rivers all around us—and these may be places with which we have even more meaningful and personal relationships than distant oceans. It's important to realize that no matter where we live we cannot escape the effects of plastic pollution.

While cleanup efforts are noble and important, Treehugger would add that changing one's shopping habits to replace single-use plastic with biodegradable and/or reusable products is a smart idea. Supporting efforts to build a circular economy, improve recycling efforts, and tighten requirements for the use of recycled content in new goods could all help. (Buying less stuff wouldn't hurt, either.) There's no easy fix, but it's clear that the status quo cannot continue.