Plastic Waters

Living in the modern world, we are completely surrounded by plastics. I have a plastic water filter, a plastic travel mug, a plastic phone, a plastic water bottle, I am currently typing on a plastic keyboard, and there is even plastic in the material my sweater is made out of.

Where does plastic go when we are done using it? Many plastic items end up in water. You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large  area of the Pacific Ocean where floating plastic has accumulated due to ocean currents, but the problem of plastic in the world’s waters is not restricted to the gyres of the Pacific Ocean.

Where does all the plastic come from?

Almost all of the plastic that has ever been created in the world still exists. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade- it simply breaks down into smaller pieces. Scientists estimate that a total of 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced in the world, as of July 2017. Worldwide ~400 million metric tons of plastic are manufactured each year, and 33 million tons of that is created in the United States. Of the total plastic wastes generated thus far, only 9% have been recycled, another 12% were incinerated releasing toxic byproducts, and the remaining 79% have been put into landfills or are in the natural environment.  

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How Does All That Plastic Get into the Ocean? Image Credit: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung via Flickr.

Where is plastic in the environment?

Plastics take a variety of routes to end up in our natural environments. These range from deliberate actions like littering to more accidental routes like plastic debris blowing out of a trashcan or landfill. Plastic waste items that escape refuse management often wash into waterways such as creeks, rivers, lakes, and oceans. All waterways ultimately lead to the ocean, where plastics are deposited into the infamous garbage patches. However, not all plastic accumulation is easily visible to the naked eye. Microplastics (really small fragments of plastic including microfibers and microbeads) have also been found in many rivers. Those rivers are often sources of municipal drinking water. A recent study found microplastics in 80% of the drinking water samples tested.

As plastics accumulate in the world’s waters, they also accumulate in organisms. When plastics are broken down into small enough pieces aquatic organisms such as krill, clams, fish, and whales can consume them. Consumption of plastic can negatively affect these organisms by blocking their digestive tract, resulting in starvation. Even if the animal survives, these plastics are passed up the food chain and eventually be consumed by humans. Plastic pollution is not just an environmental concern but also a threat to human health. Plastics impact human health when they leach chemicals or penetrate into the digestive tract.

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Albatross at Midway Atoll Refuge. Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Flickr.

What can you do?

At the most basic level you can make a difference by practicing the four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and one that may be less familiar, Refuse.

Further steps you can take:

  • Identify alternatives to disposable plastics you may normally use such as bringing a reusable container to restaurants to bring home leftovers.
  • Follow the example of Flagler County schools in Florida by encouraging a local school program to use recycled paper food trays instead of styrofoam.
  • Use a reusable water bottle and bring your own coffee mug
  • Avoid plastic straws. Skip the straw or bring a reusable glass or stainless steel straw.
  • Look for alternative biodegradable materials to line food containers and coffee cups, like those being developed by the Locklin Lab at UGA.
  • Buy clothing made from natural fibers like cotton or recycled ocean plastics.
  • Avoid cosmetics that contain polyethylene as an ingredient.
  • Bring your own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store.
  • Participate in a river or beach clean-up.
  • Get involved in citizen science programs like the Marine Debris Tracker program, or the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project.
  • Further inform yourself about the problem by doing your own online research and watching documentaries like A Plastic Ocean, which is available on Netflix.

Keep in mind that any plastic you use in your life will likely be on Earth far beyond your lifetime. Each decision you make affects the future of our planet.

About the Author

Karen BobierKaren Bobier is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Genetics studying populations of freshwater fishes in North Georgia and the evolution of DNA methylation genes. In her spare time she enjoys reading, hanging out with her dog, and is a member of the Red and Black Archery Club. You can email her at Karen.bobier25@uga.edu. More from Karen Bobier.