This month is Plastic Free July, now a worldwide initiative to increase awareness of the growing effects of plastics on the environment and to encourage everyone to reduce their consumption and waste of plastic-based products.
We’ve all seen pictures of plastic debris littering the coastline and entangling wildlife. But it’s what can’t be seen that is most concerning. Plastic trash eventually breaks down into small and microscopic particles that persist for decades, centuries or longer. These microplastics are ingested by creatures all along the marine food web, from plankton to fish, birds and whales. Broken down further, some nanoplastics may be absorbed by their cells. Science is only beginning to reveal the potential and longer-term effects of the increasing microplastic accumulation in waters, soils and living things.
One might think that Alaska is remote from the major effects of plastic pollution, but recent research is showing that this is not the case. Deep sea currents transport microplastics from around the world and they tend to settle in the cold Arctic waters. In fact, Arctic Ocean surface waters and ocean bottoms have some of the highest concentrations of microplastics. A National Park Service study, “Quantification of Microplastics on National Park Beaches,” found microplastics or plastic-based microfibers within the beach sediments of all 10 Alaska parks sampled, including the remote Cape Krusenstern National Monument.
University of Alaska Anchorage professor Doug Causey, who studies pollution in Alaska, said microplastics are working their way up the food chain. Last summer he and his research team found them in all 120 birds they sampled, representing 10 species. They also found microplastics on a glacier. Other scientists have found them on sea ice, supporting the growing evidence that air currents transport microplastics to the Arctic, where they settle.
Where is all this coming from? Much comes from developing nations whose garbage collection systems are inadequate or nonexistent. But throughout the world, plastics are dumped into the ocean or they are burned, releasing particles into the atmosphere. The causes and effects of plastic pollution are truly worldwide.
How about us? Well, have you washed a fleece or polyester garment lately? Recent studies have shown that each machine washing of them can release a thousand or more plastic-based microfibers. Because of their size, they are seldom captured by wastewater treatment facilities. That’s the case in Fairbanks too. “These particles are so small that no filter can get them out,” one of our facility’s engineers told me. So those filaments from your pullover go into the Chena River and end up in the Bering Sea.
That’s just one example of how we Americans, who are leading the world in the increasing production of plastic products, and whose recycling rate for them is a mere 9% to 15%, are part of the problem.
So what can we as individuals do? First, Google “Plastic Free July.” The website has dozens of examples of how the daily choices we make can reduce plastic pollution.
But as citizens we need to do more. We need to confront the fact that the increasing plastic and other synthetic chemical pollution of our oceans and atmosphere will interact with and compound the growing effects of climate change on both. We need to act less provincially as a nation and more as a member of a world community, because this globalized planet is becoming a single ecosystem. And with the upcoming change in the administration (hopefully), we can encourage our representatives to support recycling and other policies that will return our nation to its once-leading role in protecting the global environment.
Roger Kaye lives in Fairbanks.