MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Environmentalists say microplastics are causing a huge problem at beaches on the Great Lakes.

Microplastics are very small fragments of plastic in the environment that are a result of broken down trash and debris. Studies estimate nearly 22 million pounds of microplastics enter the Great Lakes every year.

“Microplastics are less than five millimeters in size. Macroplastics are larger than that but they break down naturally due to sunlight and they become these microplastics. They can be taken up by fish, they can be taken up by other aquatic organisms and what happens is they clog their gastrointestinal tract or they fill up with these nonnutritional particles and end up starving to death,” said Allen and Helen Hunting Research professor Alan Steinman.

For several years, Steinman has led environmental research at the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University. He said the microplastic problem is almost exclusively a result of human activity and that one of the biggest ways humans contribute to the debris is by washing clothing. He said fibers from your clothes shed and end up in lakes and oceans.

“It’s gotten significantly worse. I mean, exponentially worse in terms of the amounts of microplastics getting in and that’s why manufacturers are currently under some pressure to figure out either a way to reduce the volume of microplastics or figure out incentives that society can implement in order to make sure we’re not throwing things out,” Steinman said. “We’re the ones that are producing the plastics, we’re the ones that are throwing out the plastics and they’re either getting into our landfills, which takes decades or centuries to break down, or they’re getting into our waters.”

On Tuesday, Meijer announced the launch of two drones meant to help chip away at the microplastics problem at Pere Marquette Park Beach in Muskegon. The big-box grocery chain says it worked in partnership with the Council for the Great Lakes Region, GVSU and the City of Muskegon.

“Our mission at Meijer is to enrich lives in the communities that we serve and environmental stability is a part of that mission,” said Erik Petrovskis, the director of environmental compliance and sustainability at Meijer. “To grow the great food we have in our stores, we need a healthy environment, we need clean water. And so it’s part of our overall mission not only to enrich communities but to address impacts from plastic waste and so on.”

The remote-controlled drones are called the Bebot and Pixie drones. They are used to rake trash on the beach and in bodies of water, respectively. To kickstart the project, Meijer donated $1 million to pay for the drones.

The drones are set to go to work at 18 sites across Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. The Pixie drone can collect up to 200 pounds of material from the water per use. The Bebot drone can rake up to 32,000 square feet of beach per hour. Once collected, the material they collect is sorted and organic stuff like rocks and shells are returned to the beach while trash is properly disposed of.

“We think that, unfortunately, once it ends up in the water, it’s very difficult to recover. So we try to catch the trash along the beach,” said Gautier Peers with Poralu Marine, the company that makes the technology behind the drones.

Peers said in the 35 years that the company has existed and as it visits more waterways, the trash problem has become increasingly obvious. He said the problem is so large that it would be impossible to end it by acting retroactively. Peers said it’s the reason this project isn’t just about cleaning up: He said the drones are also designed to be manually operated to draw attention and raise awareness as curious beachgoers ask questions.

“We want to show that to the people and try to make them change their habits, maybe consume less plastic, don’t bring plastic to the beach or near the water. We also want to use the technology to collect data,” Peers said.

Peers said that because many communities are not aware the technology exists, demand for the drones is low. Currently, Poralu says it has fewer than 10 drones in North America. Peers said he hopes as more communities launch the technology, more data will be collected to illustrate the problem and generate more interest in a solution.

Representatives from Meijer say cleanups with the Bebot and Pixie drones will launch at beaches after Labor Day.

“I’m thrilled about this work, to be able to see it come to fruition and that we can make a difference in our communities,” Petrovskis said.