Alpena local and environmental community leader, Meag Schwartz, is making waves for a positive and cleaner future.

Meag is the creator and founder of Great Lakes Great Responsibility (GLGR), a non-profit organization whose purpose is to empower and educate individuals to take action to protect and advocate for the Great Lakes. The program started in November 2020 and focuses on the removal of litter and preventing debris from entering our beloved lakes.

“The idea simmered in the back of my mind for over a year, but after finding a significant amount of trash on one of my favorite Northeast Michigan beaches, I was inspired to take action,” says Schwartz. “I love setting goals for myself and thought, ‘Can I pick up a million pieces of trash? How long would that take me?’ After some quick math, I found that if I picked up 100 pieces per day, it would take over 27 years to collect 1 million pieces. That’s when I knew I had to call on other Great Lakes advocates to join me.”

Meag Schwartz holding trash she found on her favorite beach. Photo credit: Rick Houchin Photography.

Schwartz then created the “One Million Challenge” and made a public announcement on social media, encouraging other individuals to help in the effort to remove 1 million pieces of litter from the Great Lakes watershed. Individuals or groups first pick a location, collect trash, count it, and then report the data on the Great Lakes Great Responsibility website:  The challenge welcomes anyone in the Great Lakes region to participate. This includes the entire state of Michigan, Ontario, and the seven other states that have Great Lakes coastline. So far, over 25,000 pieces have been collected and documented on the GLGR website. Volunteers have picked up an array of various items including pop cans, balloon fragments, chunks of plastic, and hundreds of other different objects. The most common items found have been cigarette butts. In fact, cigarette butts are not biodegradable as many people think. Quite a large portion of them is made up of plastic.

Schwartz explained that cigarette butts are one of her biggest pet peeves when it comes to littering and is working on a campaign called, “Thunder Bay Isn’t Your Ash Tray.” She wants to find other ways on disposing of cigarette remains, besides people throwing them on the ground. Oftentimes, the butts end up in storm drains, which eventually find their way out to the lakes.

GLGR is currently partnering with MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation) in designing storm drain prototype filters, using a combination of metal and net systems. They have already installed one in Rogers City, near the harbor beach. When stormwater drains, it inevitably makes its way out to the lakes, oftentimes carrying litter along with the rainwater.  The goal of the filter is to catch any trash from the drains before it enters Lake Huron. If the project is successful, Schwartz hopes the idea will spread to other Great Lakes communities.

On average, 22 million lbs. of trash is dumped into our Great Lakes every year. It’s important that we keep our natural water sources clean as they are used for drinking. Nearly 40 million people rely on our Great Lakes for drinking water. Due to pollution, microplastics are commonly found in our drinking water. They are so small that they can pass through water treatment plants.

“Our litter cleanup work is really the last line of defense for the lakes. I like to think that most of the trash we find isn’t deliberate litter, but we live in a world so filled with plastic that it’s permeating into our ecosystems,” explained Schwartz. The ultimate goal is to reduce plastic production at a corporate level and plastic consumption on an individual level so we don’t find it littering our beaches, roadways and forests. In addition to removing litter, people can help by reaching out to the corporations to ask for earth-friendly packaging — these corporations listen to their customer base. On an individual level there are many actions you can take to reduce waste in your own life, but corporate-level change is where we will see the biggest impact.”

Plans for the Future

Schwartz has several projects in the works. GLGR is teaming up with Great Lakes Divers, Mott Underwater, and Sea the Word Scuba to host a community beach clean-up in Alpena on Saturday, April 24th in honor of Earth Day. Divers will be combing the floor of Lake Huron for marine debris, with other volunteers will be helping to remove trash from the land. The event is from 10 am – 12 pm at Starlite Beach.

A volunteer holding a tiny lightbulb she found on the beach during a trash clean-up.

Schwartz also said that advocates can host their own clean-up events anywhere across the Great Lakes region. You can contact her through the GLGR website, and she can help promote it.

“We have beach and inland clean-ups happening throughout the region, led by volunteers and organizations that care deeply for our lakes. We plan to pilot a mini-grant program for volunteers looking to clean up larger dump sites that may require a dumpster or that have additional disposal costs.”

Artists are welcome to donate a piece of their artwork to be raffled to raise funds for beach clean-up kits and the mini-grant program. GLGR will cover the cost of shipping the piece and are a tax-deductible non-profit. The artwork can be anything from paintings to handmade jewelry. Schwartz will create a profile on the GLGR website for each artist that donates to help cross-promote them.

Another upcoming project is the WaveMaker Series, which highlights the efforts of professionals and individuals around the region whose work keeps our lakes healthy.

“The Great Lakes are our most precious natural resource. They provide drinking water for 10% of the US population and 30% of the Canadian population,” explained Schwartz. “They are the habitat for aquatic wildlife and drinking water for terrestrial animals. Economically, this region would collapse if our lakes become irreparably polluted. The lakes are an incredible space for recreation–snorkeling, paddleboarding, swimming, watching a sunrise, and more. Our Great Lakes are a gift and we need to take responsibility for their well-being.”

Get involved!

If you are interested in being a guardian of the Great Lakes and want to get involved, or find out more information about Great Lakes Great Responsibility, check out the website:

Facebook page:

Follow @greatlakesgreatresponsibility on Instagram.

Featured photo credit: Rick Houchin Photography