Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ December 2014

Don’t Be Fooled:  Plastics are Forever

By Carole Ann Barth

Scene from the 1967 movie The Graduate
Mr. McGuire:  “I want to say one word to you.  Just one word.”
Benjamin:  “Yes, sir.”
Mr. McGuire:  “Are you listening?”
Benjamin:  “Yes, I am.”
Mr. McGuire:  “Plastics.”
Benjamin:  “Exactly how do you mean?”
Mr. McGuire:  “There’s a great future in plastics.  Think about it.  Will you think about it?”

Forty-seven years later, plastics are still the future — but it’s a grim future.  The crux of the problem is this:  most objects made of plastic are designed to be thrown away, but plastic lasts forever.  Now, you may be thinking, “So what?  I recycle my plastic bottles every week, I bring my own grocery bags, and when I have a large rigid plastic item (like a kid’s playhouse) to dispose of, I take it out to the transfer station.”

Unfortunately, most plastic does not get recycled, yet plastics are an ever-increasing part of the waste stream.  Currently, plastics make up almost 13 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, a dramatic increase from 1960, when plastics were less than one percent of the waste stream.

In 2012, only nine percent of the plastic waste generated in America was captured for recycling.  Since 32 million tons of plastic waste were generated in 2012, that means almost 30 million tons of plastic didn’t get recycled.  Instead, roughly half the waste gets landfilled, leaving about 15 million tons unaccounted for.

So where does the rest go?  Stormwater runoff carries the plastic waste (and other contaminates) off the land and into our creeks and rivers.  In our watershed, it becomes part of the 20,000 tons of trash entering the Anacostia River each year.

Let’s look at one component of this plastic tide:  plastic bags.  The Alice Ferguson Foundation (which coordinates cleanups throughout the Potomac watershed) reported a 50 percent decline in plastic bags in Montgomery County in the first year after the Montgomery County bag fee went into force.  In Washington, D.C., plastic bag use decreased 60 percent after implementation of the D.C.  bag fee.  So the bag fees obviously help.

The sailboat ‘Obtuse’ at dock.

Still, in this year’s Potomac River Watershed Cleanup, 14,766 volunteers collected 35,600 plastic bags from 671 sites around the watershed.  (Of course, that includes bags from jurisdictions without bag fees.)  The bottom line is there are still lots of bags that make it out to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, where endangered sea turtles mistake the bags for jellyfish, an important part of their diet.  Turtles that ingest bags can die from gastric obstruction.

What else gets swept out to sea with the bags?  Lots and lots of plastic bottles and containers along with lids, balloons, strapping, flip flops, cigarette filters, lighters, toys, nurdles, and microbeads.  [Nurdles are the preproduction plastic pellets used in manufacturing and packaging.  Ovals about 5mm long, they can easily be spilled during transport and can cling to surfaces.  Nationwide, about 60 billion pounds of nurdles are produced annually.  Facial scrubs, soaps, and toothpaste contain thousands of polyethylene and polypropylene microbeads, ranging from 50-500 microns, or ½ mm in diameter.  These particles are small enough to go right down the drain, through the treatment plant, and out into rivers and streams.]

Once out into the ocean, plastic can travel great distances.  Remote island beaches become littered with plastic trash.  Albatross chicks die with bellies full of plastic bits, fed to them by their parents who mistook it for food.  In all, 663 species of marine wildlife are affected by plastic pollution through ingestion or entanglement.

Trash also collects in gyres (giant circular oceanic surface currents).  The North Pacific Gyre, the most heavily researched for plastic pollution, spans an area roughly twice the size of the United States — though it is a fluid system, shifting seasonally in size and shape.

The Pacific Gyre garbage patch was discovered by racing Captain Charles Moore in 1997 while sailing from Hawaii to California after competing in a yachting race.  Crossing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, Moore and his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship.

The key word here is “pieces.” While Moore observed many identifiable fragments of plastic objects, he was only seeing a fraction of the plastic swirling around in the vortex.  This is because sunlight eventually makes plastic brittle, and the action of the waves breaks the plastic up into ever smaller pieces, until it becomes microscopic.

Trawling Chesapeake Bay for microplastic samples off the ‘Obtuse’ (shown above) on the Trash Trawl in November.

These microplastics (two millimeters or less in length) can go unnoticed.  But just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s gone.  There is six times more plastic than plankton (by mass) in the North Pacific Gyre.  This increasingly dense plastic soup may pose a great risk to the food chain.

Plastics are very good at absorbing persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs, DDT, and PAHs.  A single plastic particle can absorb up to 1,000,000 times more toxic particles than the water around it.  Other toxic chemicals (such as phtlalates, used to keep plastics pliable) are released as plastics age.  Thus, microplastics could deliver toxics into the tissues and blood of fish that we consume.

This problem is not limited to the Pacific.  There are five major gyres around the world, and plastic soup has been found in the North Atlantic Gyre, the Great Lakes, and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  However, until very recently, there was no information on plastics in Chesapeake Bay.

In November, Trash Free Maryland and the Five Gyres organization spent five days trawling the Chesapeake for microplastic.  Sampling was difficult due to rough weather, but one sample they pulled contained about 10 times as much plastic as a typical ocean sample.  Further analysis and a report of the results will be forthcoming, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, You can read about the trawl at and see photos from the trawl at #chesbay #trashtrawl.   ■

   © 2014 NFCCA  [Source:]