Three important news items related to trash hit the wires last week.
Now trash may not be the most exciting subject — nor is it likely to attract a lot of attention around a long holiday weekend. But solid waste that becomes trash in our waterways through mishandling or outright littering is a growing concern for ecologists, stormwater managers and operators of tourist and vacation venues.
Virginia just issued the 2013 solid waste report, an accounting of solid wastes processed by permitted facilities in the state. More than 20 million tons of solid waste were processed, with municipal solid waste accounting for 12 million tons (the rest was construction and demolition debris and other forms of solid waste). More than two-thirds of the municipal solid waste processed in Virginia came from out-of-state sources.
The report also noted that five jurisdictions accounted for 98 percent of those out-of-state sources: Maryland (43 percent), New York (26 percent), the District of Columbia (18 percent) and New Jersey and North Carolina (each contributed about 5 percent).
The same day, the Alice Ferguson Foundation reported that during the April 2014 Annual Potomac River Cleanup close to 15,000 volunteers removed 288 tons of trash and debris from 670 cleanup sites in the 14,670 square mile watershed that includes West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC.
Other organizations sponsor similar events designed to raise awareness while cleaning up unsightly trash in public spaces. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation hosts the Clean the Bay event every June, and Clean Virginia Waterways organizes a cleanup every September and October.
Data from these types of cleanup events — pounds of trash removed, types of trash removed — are included in the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup report.
Plastic trash — food and beverage containers, packaging and cigarette butts, to name a few — floating on the ocean eventually breaks down into smaller and smaller bits, or microplastics, that are consumed by marine organisms from the lowest levels of the food chain on up. [See Bay Journal, Invisible microplastics a threat to bottom of marine food web.]
The third report, an article published in Science, estimates that 99 percent of the plastic waste that “should” be floating in the world’s oceans is just not there — at least not in the top few meters of the ocean where scientists have been looking for it.
Based on ocean trawl surveys and analyses, the authors of the study hypothesize that fish and other marine organisms have been eating most of this plastic once it has degraded into microplastics (2 millimeters or less in length). Multiple studies by researchers around the world have found plastic in the tissues of fish at all levels of the marine food web.
This means that you and I may be consuming plastic with that seafood dinner at the sea coast town that we visit this summer. Yikes!
What links these three reports is data from NOAA, EPA, and others that says 40 – 80 percent of debris found in our waterways and marine environments has come from “land-based sources.” According to yet another report issued recently by the United Nations Environment Programme, the overall cost of plastics to marine ecosystems is $13 billion a year.
The other common denominator is that the source and ultimate destination of much of this trash — unlike many forms of pollution — is in our hands.
What we choose to buy and how we dispose of unwanted items can go a long way toward making sure that our own personal solid waste stream is not entering waterways and ultimately the ocean.
Recently, “RETHINK” has become the fourth “R” in the popular moniker, “reduce, reuse and recycle.”
As I enjoy my summer getaways, visiting beaches near and far, these reports lead me to my own “fourth R” – to “reconsider,” yet again, how my own consumer choices and personal trash management can positively affect the waters I know and care about.
See also Bay Journal blog: Bottles, and plastics, and balloons, oh my!