Izaak Walton League of America

Watershed Conservation Activities

     in Fairfax County, Virginia

Plastic Soup?

I didn’t order this.

In the Worlds Oceans, a stew of plastic fragments is forming from the debris of modern society.

Each day throughout the World, many tons of discarded plastic are being carried by storm water runoff into the rivers and streams of every developed and developing nation. Trash from a Route 66 storm drain which flows into Cub Run - Fairfax, VA

Much of this material is post consumer plastic that begins its journey to the sea by being discarded on roadways where it is washed down storm drains.

As this material travels downstream, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Once the river currents wash these plastic fragments out to sea, Ocean currents tend to collect and concentrate this material to the point that in some areas of the Ocean, fragments of plastic actually outnumber the plankton in the water. Unless this material is somehow removed, it will likely persist for centuries as a continual threat to marine life and fishery resources.

The most famous example of this phenomena is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a gigantic accumulation of plastic fragments between Hawaii and San Francisco in the North Pacific Gyre. In the Atlantic Ocean, a similar accumulation of plastic trash was discovered in February of 2010, which stretches from the approximate latitude of Virginia south to about the same latitude as Cuba.

What About Recycling Plastic?

Recycling is a feel good solution that really is not a solution since it doesn't address the basic issues.

  1. That once a product is used or consumed the packaging has little or no value to the consumer. Therefore the consumer has little incentive to properly dispose of the material other than perhaps a sense of duty not to litter.
  2. That there is virtually no demand for post consumer plastic and so there is little economic incentive for someone to pick it up once it has become litter.
    Most Manufacturers will opt to use virgin plastic rather than use post consumer material of unknown origin or composition obtained from a waste facility.
  3. Even if there were a demand for post consumer plastic, by the time it is picked up, it likely is so dirty and fragmented that processing it would be a waste of energy.

Prevention Is the Cheaper Alternative

Although waterway cleanups can help curb the amount of plastic going into the ocean, there are only a finite number of volunteers that you can recruit for a particular cleanup and a finite amount of time in which to accomplish these tasks. Meanwhile trash flows downstream 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. it takes far less effort to prevent trash from going in to streams and rivers than it does to try to remove it from the water.

What is required is legislation that will limit or curtail the quantity of plastic items being discarded on our streets.
Some good first steps would be;

  1. The imposition of a container deposit on sealed beverage containers. More than a third of the items that we pick during a given cleanup would come under a bottle bill.
  2. A tax specifically targeting one-time use plastic shopping bags with the aim of dissuading retailers from using them in favor of biodegradable paper bags.

Don’t let plastic pollution be our legacy to future generations