By one estimate, 20 million tons of plastic debris reaches our oceans, lakes, and rivers each year.
The problem with plastic waste stems from the fact is it does not biodegrade. Birds, mammals, and fish ingest it, mistaking it for food, even feeding it to their young. Since it isn’t edible, it causes choking and blockages in stomachs and intestines, leading to starvation and death. Wildlife can also become tangled or trapped in plastic debris becoming injured or drowned.
In addition to harming wildlife, this plastic debris degrades coral reefs, causes billions of dollars in cleanup costs, damages ships and causes lost tourism and fisheries revenues.
It has been found in every corner of the earth including the most remote islands and the ocean floor.
In Minnesota, living far from an ocean, we still impact our local waters and are still a part of the global problem. Our storm drains flow to local creeks and lakes, which flow into the Minnesota River, which eventually flows into the Mississippi River, which picks up and deposits plastic debris all along its course till it flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
Along with this plastic debris, a new plastic problem has come to light. A non-profit group called 5 Gyres Institute published the first ever report that showed “micro-plastics,” tiny grains of polyethylene and polypropylene, found in high concentrations in the Great Lakes including Lake Superior. A major source of these micro plastics is personal care and beauty products in which they are used as exfoliates.
Sewage treatment does not remove them. These beads are the size of fish eggs and can absorb and concentrate toxins making them an ecosystem wide threat to the food chain and human health. Thankfully, many major companies have agreed to phase them out and there is an app called “Beat the Microbead” found at www.BeatTheMicroBead.org which is used to scan items in a store and learn whether it contains plastic.
Plastics found in oceans, lakes and rivers is a growing problem, but not an insurmountable one.
A 19 year old man named Boyan Slat devised a plan and designed a structure to remove the plastic debris from the ocean with minimal or no impact to wildlife. His project is called the Ocean Cleanup Array and may even be profitable through the recycling of plastics cleaned up. Slat is working with funders, biologists and engineers to turn his idea into reality.
Meanwhile, there are a ton of actions you can take to reduce the flow of plastics to our waters:
1) Reduce plastic purchases — don’t buy products with lots of plastic packaging. If you do, recycle it.
2) Pick up trash when you see it on the ground. If you don’t, it will be washed away and contribute to the problem.
3) Make sure your recycling bin’s lid is secure. About 45 percent of trash “littered” actually comes from recycling bins and recycling trucks with unsecure lids and tops where the materials can blow off or fall out.
4) Use cloth bags and reusable water bottles to cut down on the amount of plastic bags and bottles made and tossed away. Note: plastic bags can be recycled at the Carver County Environmental Center and many grocery stores throughout the county.
5) Don’t use personal care or other products with micro-beads.
6) Call on your state and federal congress to address issues and create policies that both prevent plastic waste and clean it up.
7) Join our Water, Environmental and Natural Resources Advisory Committee to help guide policies and actions around water resources and recycling. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (952) 361-1026 for info.
8) Visit the Carver County Environmental Center and collection locations (see www.co.carver.mn.us/ec or www.rethinkrecycling.com) for information on all that can be recycled. It’s a lot!
Madeline Seveland is the education coordinator for the Carver County Water Management Organization. Her column is a monthly feature of the Carver County News.