The Persistence of Plastic

Though plastic is durable, cheap, and common in everyday items, it comes at a large environmental cost.

“Micro Ocean Plastic,” by OceanBlueProject.org is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Plastic, a man-made petrochemical product, can take thousands of years to decompose if at all. Meanwhile, we just keep making more of it. Over time, plastics break down into smaller and smaller particles, to the point where they are virtually invisible. These tiny plastic particles are commonly referred to as “microplastics.” Other sources of microplastics are the tiny plastic fibers or “microfibers” in clothing (think of your favorite fleece jacket or yoga pants), or the microplastic beads made for some cosmetics, body wash products or even toothpaste. When washed down the drain, these plastic microfibers and microbeads are tiny enough to pass right through the wastewater treatment plants and into the river, or even if they are removed, may re-enter the environment through the sewage sludge applied to fields as fertilizer. Besides all the plastic litter that you can see, invisible microplastics are everywhere. They are now found in our soils, throughout the oceans, in the Arctic and Antarctic ice, in our once pristine mountain lakes, and are light enough to be carried by the wind high into the atmosphere to all corners of the Earth.

If that weren’t distressing enough, plastics have recently been found inside our bodies. They are in the food we eat (particularly in seafoods), the water we drink (highest levels in bottled water), and even the air we breathe (highest levels downwind from big cities). A study recently published in Environmental Science & Technology estimates that the average American consumes 74,000 to 121,000 particles of microplastic per year. Plastics are also known to act like sponges that concentrate chemicals and toxins from the environment and into our bodies. While the effects are still unknown, much more research is needed to understand the impacts of microplastics on human health.  We do know that plastic can be devastating to the countless birds, fish, and animals that ingest it or are trapped by it. Suffice it to say that plastic in all sizes and forms are rapidly accumulating and damaging the oceans and marine life, our environment, and ultimately ourselves.

So, what can we as individuals do about such an overwhelming and complex problem? Here are ten immediate actions you can take:

  • Reduce the use of single-use plastic products (cups, packages, plastic bags, plastic utensils and straws, etc.) Bring your own re-useable grocery and produce bags to the store. Bring your own silverware to the office, or travel mug to the coffee shop.
  • Stop buying bottled water. Use a re-useable water bottle.
  • Eat whole foods. Processed and ready-to-eat foods require more food packaging. Moreover, microplastic and chemicals in food packages can leach into the food itself.
  • Buy foods in bulk. This can reduce the amount of food packaging needed.
  • Make things last and buy used items. This reduces the need for new plastic packaging and saves money too.
  • Recycle properly. Be sure recyclables are clean and properly sorted.
  • Avoid all personal care products with microbeads. These products may include “polyethylene,” “polystyrene” or “polypropylene” in the list of ingredients. (The good news is many countries, including the US, have begun banning their sales.)
  • Buy natural clothing materials instead of synthetics and microfiber.
  • Use devices in the washing machine to trap microfibers. Search your internet browser for ‘washing machine lint filter’ or ‘microfiber catching laundry bag’ for more information.)
  • Pick up litter and trash. Anything washed into a storm drain will end up in the creek and eventually in the ocean. Participate in beach and river cleanups sponsored by your local organizations and agencies. Learn more about the streets to creek connection by visiting www.streetstocreeks.org.

Most importantly, stay informed on the issue of plastic pollution and help to make others aware of the problem. As consumers, think about how we support the products, manufacturers and industries that perpetuate and profit from our daily habits (which are all too often governed by convenience) – the things we eat, the things we do, and the things we buy. Support bans on single-use plastic and support organizations that address plastic pollution.  Plastic persists in our environment and is a huge global challenge that will require the actions of individuals, organizations, industries, and governments around the world working together.

This article was authored by Benjamin Kageyama, of the City of Healdsburg, Public Works Department, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.