Monday, May 21, 2018

Microplastics in Our Environment

The ubiquitous use of plastic in our modern world and inadequate management of plastic waste has led to increased contamination of freshwater, estuary and marine environments. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that in between 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons (tonnes) of plastic waste each year.  Research on pollution from small plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size, called micro plastics, has long focused on ocean pollution where most of the plastic residue ends up. Over the past 14 years, researchers have documented and studied microplastics contamination of earth’s oceans. Tremendous advances have been made in understanding the sources, fate and impact of microplastics and their associated chemical in the oceans and marine environment.

However, recently, scientists have begun to study the microplastics in freshwater and land. It was first reported that microplastics were found in freshwater lakes in 2013. Though oceans represent the largest sink of persistent plastic waste, an estimated 80% of the microplastics pollution in the oceans comes from the land. The plastics flow to the oceans and lakes from our rivers. Microplastics contamination as seen in marine animals has also been found in freshwater organisms.

Though scientists expect the effects of microplastics on freshwater organisms to be similar to those observed on marine organisms, the research has just begun. Microplastics end up in the soil environment from sewage sludge that is widely applied to agricultural lands. Fibers from laundry end up in the sewage sludge and it is spread on the land. Other sources of microplastics are weathering and disintegration of plastic sheeting used in agriculture, the fragmentation of plastic litter and plastic items both litter and in landfills. 

So far the limited studies of microplastics in the freshwater and land environments suggest that microplastics contamination is as ubiquitous on land and in freshwater as in oceans. More research needs to be done, but it is very clear that plastics are responsible for a vast array of ills from poisoning and injuring marine life, disrupting animal and human hormones, littering beaches and landscapes and clogging our waste streams and landfills, the exponential growth of plastics is threatening our planet. It will take a multi-prong approach to reduce this threat.

Each year we hold the Potomac River Watershed Cleanup which is the largest regional event of its kind and happens over several weekends each spring. Year after year volunteers clean our roadways, streams, rivers, and streambeds of trash (most of it plastic) that started as litter and was carried along by stormwater and wind into our waterways and parks or items that were illegally dumped in the woods or carried by off by storms.

This year our annual Upper Occoquan River Cleanup took place over the April 21st  weekend and covered a ¼ mile of Broad Run, and a 25 mile stretch of the Occoquan River from below the Lake Jackson Dam past Riverview Estates, Occoquan Forest, Canon Bluff, Lake Ridge Marina and Hooes Run. There were 294 Volunteers  from these communities who collected 410 trash bags, 59 tires and 10-55 gallon barrels. Volunteers cleaned up debris on the water, land or assisted in moving the debris on shore to waiting trucks or dumpsters. In all they removed 10,600 pounds of trash, but more needs to be done. 

There are lots of opportunities for you to volunteer to help cleanup our streams. Contact the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District. You can  join our programs or simply start with the most basic steps: Don’t litter and teach your children not to litter. Reduce your use of plastics. 

Eliminating litter is the best way to prevent trash along our roads, streams and waterways. The trash does not magically disappear, but finds its way carried by stormwater to our waterways and park lands disrupting the natural water flow and beauty of our natural world.

Also, reduce your use of plastics. Begin with reducing plastics that we use once and discard- like bottles of water. This is becoming a critical problem of global proportion. Plastics are some of the most commonly littered items in the world and they are drowning our planet. Plastics are present in furniture, construction materials, cars, appliances, electronics and countless other things. Be mindful of what you buy and how you use it. 

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