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How Garbage Affects Our Waterways

Updated on August 13, 2014
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How Garbage Ends Up In Lakes and Oceans

According to the Discovery Channel, recent studies have found that the average America produces 4.5 lbs of garbage a day. A day, people! That is ridiculous. Times that amount by the number of people living in America and this country alone produces 1.35 billion lbs of garbage a day. Granted the USA produces more garbage than any other country, but there are still 7 billion people on this Earth who are in some form or another producing waste each day. That's a lot of garbage. Think just because a garbage truck shows up every week and hauls your trash away that it's not your problem anymore? Think again.

How much garbage do you see end up on your street each day, or in your town? All of that garbage, if not properly disposed, will end up in a body of water, whether it just eventually finds its way there by rain or wind, or by sewer or storm drain. Most storm drains go directly into a body of water. But wait! Sewage water is at least treated, you might be thinking. Are you sure about that? Consider Syracuse, NY. Their sewage and storm drains are connected and all go to the same sewage treatment plant. If it rains, the sewage treatment plant cannot handle the input of water, so some of the water is directly released into Lake Onondaga. Yes that is correct, sewage is released directly into the lake. Sometimes, after such an event, you can even see turds floating on the Lake. I am not making this up. It is the most polluted lake in America for a reason and it’s not just because of the insanely high levels of mercury. Syracuse is not the only place in the world either that releases sewage directly into the water when the local sewage treatment plant can't handle the intake.. You know where all the sewage ends up eventually? The ocean.

Garbage also ends up in our waterways through floods. Several years ago my hometown flooded. An entire trailer park washed away. Nine of those trailers were never found and I mean the entire trailer was just gone, no traces of them anywhere. To this day, I keep finding items washed up on the beach that I believe to be products of that flood; items such as carpets (big enough to fill a whole room and not a tiny rug), I once found a bed, I find silverware, chairs, plates and even once I found a mini fridge.

My father says when he was younger the lake used to freeze over completely. People would take junk cars out onto the ice and mess around with them, such as doing 360 spins, etc. If the car broke down, they just left it on the lake, leaving it to sink the bottom when spring came. Those cars are still down there.

Boaters used to dump their trash right into the sea. It used to be the main cause of garbage in the ocean. In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 14 billion pounds of garbage was being dumped directly into the ocean every year by boaters.

Our ancestors used to dump their garbage directly into waterways too or on the street, which would then end up in the water anyway. Until recently, in my hometown people were taking their trash to the ravine (a narrow steep-sided valley eroded by running water) and dumping it directly in the creek. All that garbage from our ancestors is still there. It doesn’t just go away. A lot of what I find washed up on the beach I believe to be the product of illegal dumping; such as a parts of Clorox bleach bottles. In the 1930’s, there wasn’t a whole lot of plastic products, Clorox was bottled in glass instead. I have found quite a few glass pieces that say Clorox on them. For such a small town, that is a lot. They are most likely in the creek because someone in the 1930s took their trash and dumped it into the creek running through their backyard.

Some countries don’t have laws in regards to waste disposal and some don’t have a waste disposal system at all. No garbage truck comes to pick up their trash. All their garbage ends up in the ocean eventually too. That’s about 7 billion people currently occupying this world plus everyone who has ever lived polluting one tiny Earth. Despite what many may think, eventually our planet will not be able to take the strain anymore.

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How Much Garbage Ends Up in the Ocean

The oceans are already feeling the strain of too much garbage. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, in the LA area alone about 10 metric tons (or 22,000 lbs) of plastic fragments - such as grocery bags, soda bottles, plastic beads - end up in the Pacific Ocean every day. Not every week, every day. That's about 8 million lbs of plastic every year just from the LA area alone. Imagine the amount of garbage that ends up in the ocean every year from the whole world.

According to the NY Times about 300 million lbs of plastic is produced each year. Only 10% of that gets recycled while the rest is trashed. Of the amount tossed out, approximately 7 million lbs ends up in the ocean. About 70% of that eventually sinks damaging plant and animal life on the ocean floor, and the other 30% floats. The plastic, tossed around the sea, begins to break down creating smaller and smaller pieces. The plastic that doesn't sink accumulates in certain areas of the ocean called gyres because of the way the currents flow in the ocean and because of wind currents and other ocean features. These large areas of concentrated plastic, are called garbage patches.

You've probably heard of the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch. What do you think of when you hear the words garbage patch? You’re probably thinking of maybe what a landfill is, a large massive pile of junk all stuck together and floating around as this massive pile of crap. Kind of like one of the alien aircraft from Independence Day, slowly floating over its target and destroying all life below it. If that is what you are picturing, you would be wrong. Actually, most of the garbage isn’t even visible, not even to the naked eye if you were floating right on top of it. The majority of the garbage patch actually consists of small plastic particles suspended at or just below the surface. What you have then, is plastic soup.

It is unclear how big the ‘Garbage Patch’ is as it is not all visible. The largest estimate places it at twice the size of the United States. Yes you read that right. Take the entire US (Hawaii and Alaska excluded) double that and that is what some estimate the size of the ‘Garbage Patch’ is. Most estimates place it at a much smaller size. However, according to the NOAA, there is no clear way to estimate the size of the patches. What we do know is that (according to Elite Daily) these garbage patches hold six times more plastic than plankton and that right there is not natural and doesn’t sound healthy. There is literally more garbage than life. There isn't just one garbage patch either, but multiple garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean.

Oh and by the way, there are similar patches of garbage in the Atlantic Ocean. Nowhere is safe.

Laysan albatross's stomach filled with plastic.
Laysan albatross's stomach filled with plastic. | Source
Plastic found in the stomachs of sea birds.
Plastic found in the stomachs of sea birds. | Source

What Are the Effects of All This Plastic and Garbage on the Ocean

Remember the movie Finding Nemo? Of course you do, because that movie was awesome. And at some point in your life, you've probably caught yourself singing 'just keep swimming.' I know I have. I bring this movie up because of one scene in particular, the scene where Dory and Marlin enter the harbor at Australia just before they get eaten by the whale (I think). Remember how dirty the water was? How much garbage there was floating around in the water? How murky and disgusting the water was? That's not an exaggeration. That's reality.

Every year at least one million birds and another 100,000 marine animals die each year from plastic in the ocean, according to The Ocean Cleanup Organization. A number of species risk extinction because of the massive amounts of debris accumulating in the ocean, species such as the leatherback turtle (which survived the extinction the dinosaurs but has been almost wiped out in recent years), sea turtles and various fish species.

Ingestion

Many of these wildlife creatures die from eating plastic and other garbage they find and mistake for food. Over 180 creatures have been documented to ingest plastic debris. Ingesting plastic leads to starvation because it doesn't digest so the animal feels full and doesn't eat, or it can lead to malnutrition by blocking the absorption of nutrients the creature needs to survive. Sometimes the plastic can outright choke them or slowly poison them to death because it can be toxic. See the picture of all that junk above, just below the bird? I found it on Flickr. It was taken by a man named Trevor Leyenhorst. All of those items in the picture, including toothbrushes, lighters, bottle caps, knife handles, plastic nail polish bottles, all of it was found in the stomach of seabirds and all those seemingly harmless products killed the bird who accidentally ate it.

Toxins

Plastics can absorb organic pollutants from the water, such as DDT and PCBs. You remember DDT, don’t you? It is in probably every biology textbook in every high school (except the one’s that don’t believe in science). It’s the insecticide that built up in bird’s systems and caused their eggs to become so fragile that the babies had no chance of survival. It devastated bird populations including that of our national bird, the bald eagle who has only recently made a comeback and were officially removed from the endangered species list in 2007. That’s besides the point. Anyway, a fish comes along and eats the plastic. A fisherman comes along and catches the fish. A major food chain in America comes along and buys the fish and sells it. Then you can along, buy the fish and eat it. Do you think those chemicals magically disappear? Nope. That fish you’re eating likely has chemicals in it. Why else do you think they advise pregnant women not to eat fish?

Plastics are also extremely toxic by themselves. They take hundreds of years to break down and what they do break down into are toxic polymers. These chemicals leech out of landfills and out of the ground and end up in the water way, polluting drinking sources and other water sources. Humans and animal life then drink that water and then either get sick, or even die from it. All that garbage is out there leeching toxins into the environment. Eventually we are all going to have to pay for it, in both money and our health.

Bacteria formation

When garbage begins to accumulate in sources of water, eventually if begins to suffocate the life out of it, and I mean that literally. Bacteria, especially fecal coliform (which comes for poop by the way), begins to spread like wild fire which is incredibly dangerous to humans and other animal life. The water will turn brown and murky, which means light can't reach the bottom and plant life begins to die because of it. It also decreases the level of oxygen in the water, which then suffocates the marine life. Plus it is gross and can make you, your pet, or any other wildlife that comes into contact with it, sick.

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Entanglement

A huge problem for many marine creatures is entanglement in debris. Nets can entrap animals such as dolphins. Once stuck in a net, unable to reach the surface for air, the dolphin eventually drowns. Other times due to restricted movements from being stuck in plastic, the animal becomes easily exhausted leaving it more vulnerable to predators. Entanglement can also lead to a complete loss of movement until the animal suffocates or starves to death. If an animal gets stuck in an item, such as a plastic ring, it can inhibit or stunt natural growth, or debris can leave deep, open wounds on the animal that will not heal due to the continued presence of the plastic. It is not a pleasant death for any animal.

Not just animals are affected by nets and marine debris either. Nets dragged along the ground can also damage ecosystems such as areas of coral reef, breaking and sometimes smothering the coral and destroying entire species's homes. Plastic bags and other debris can also suffocate plants or block their light source and basically starve the plant, like putting on of your mother’s potted plants in a cupboard.

Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts are a huge problem, especially since many smokers throw their butts directly on the ground and don't bother to throw them out. Each year, billions of cigarette butts end up in Earth's waterways. Studies have shown that cigarette butts are toxic, especially the filters. In fact they are so toxic that the Cigarette Butt Advisory Group recommends that they be considered hazardous waste. It goes without saying that they are toxic to marine wildlife, just by proximity. Imagine what it does to a bird or other wildlife when ingested?

Invasive Species

Floating marine debris can also pick up species and carry it to a new location essentially inviting an invasive species into a new area. Invasive species can devastate a natural ecosystem. Because they have no natural predators when introduced to a new area, their population explodes. They eat all the food, they crowd out or even kill the wildlife that was originally there and can potentially destroy the entire habitat. According to Discovery there is approximately $120 billion of damage each year caused by invasive species.

When Zebra mussels first made an appearance in Lake Erie in the 1980s, people thought it was a miracle. The lake had been declared dead in the 70's, but thanks to the mussels helping to devour the overgrown amounts of algae, the lake was no longer considered dead. However, Zebra mussels were soon to become a huge and devastating problem.

Believed to be brought over on the ballasts of ships from western Europe, Zebra mussels have no natural enemies in the Great Lakes. Thanks to the secretion of durable elastic strands known as byssal fibers, zebra mussels can stick to pretty much anything, from boats and pipes to other animals such as turtles and clams. They eat phytoplankton and green, healthy algae and have pretty much decimated the food source for many of the other wildlife. This raises many concerns about the fate of many fish species in the Great Lakes that rely on phytoplankton and green algae to survive. They are also extremely dangerous to clams and have nearly destroyed clam populations. Due to the fact that zebra mussels stick to pipes so well, they disrupt power plants and water supply facilities by clogging up their systems causing millions in damage. Because plankton eat only green algae, at an alarming rate, and they ignore blue-green algae, blue-green algae flourishes. Why is this a problem? Because blue-green algae can produce toxins and be harmful if you or your family or pets comes into contact with it. Zebra mussels have the potential to completely ruin all of the Great Lakes ecosystems which would financially ruin many people.

How Humans are Directly Affected

There are many ways that people are directly affected by garbage in our waterways. When junk washes up on shore, it's unsightly and a hazard. This hurts tourism as no one wants to go to an ugly, and probably stinky beach. To clean up beaches of marine debris is costly and damages the beach ecosystem as well.

The fishing industry is affected. If an invasive species wipes out the fish that were originally there, what are you going to do? Not a whole lot. If a massive pile of garbage kills off hordes of fish that then wash up shore, that is a huge economic loss for the fisherman, the places they sell the fish to, and the people who consume fish, i.e. you, because you can bet that prices will skyrocket as supply dwindles. Dead fished washed up on shore also hurts tourism as the scent of dead fish is almost equivalent to that of a skunk spray. If there's no fish to fish, that's an entire industry in danger of collapsing, millions of dollars in profit and thousands of jobs. It could ruin whole towns dependent on its income.

Floating debris can damage propellers and other boat parts. Beachgoers can be injured by stepping on debris, even used needles can be washed up. I have not found any needles, but I have found medicine vials on the beach, and not the kind that kind be found in a home, but in a hospital or doctors office. It had to have been thrown out in a medical facility. But how did it end up washed up on the shores and what other medical waste was it with when it ended up in the lake? Marine debris also poses a hazard for swimmers as they can become entangled in the debris.

Coral Reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
Coral Reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge | Source

How Humans are Indirectly Affected

We can also be indirectly affected too.Think of the cost it takes to clean up beaches. That comes out of your taxes. Or say humans completely destroy the coral reefs, either by pollution or because the waters have become too warm for their survival. What happens then? The loss of the coral reef could reek havoc on a global scale. According to USA Today, almost half the fish consumed by people make their homes in or near coral reefs. The loss of the coral reefs would also likely mean the extinction of the majority of those fishes. You might be thinking, well I don't eat fish that doesn't effect me. But think of fisherman, think of people in other countries. USA Today estimates that almost one billion people depend on fish as a source of food and income. That is 1/7 of the population without food and jobs if we lose the coral reefs. Entire nations could financially collapse. Hunger, poverty would skyrocket leading to political instability. And we all know what political instability leads to: war. This world has gone to war enough, we do not need anymore violence.

Much of the world's coral reefs has already been destroyed and the rest is at risk. We are risking global chaos if we do not do more to protect our oceans.

If nothing changes, eventually the oceans will become compromised. If the oceans essentially become 'dead', like Lake Onondaga in Syracuse, NY, the human species has no chance of surviving. Phytoplankton in the ocean provide between 50 - 85% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. If there is no phytoplankton because the ocean is too toxic to support life, what are we going to breath if there is no oxygen? People think science will save us, but it might not, especially if we don't invest in solutions now. One can't just will the oceans to clean themselves, and nothing is really being done about it because honestly, the governments don't really care and no one wants the responsibility.

That's the big, horribly depressing, picture.

The Ocean Cleanup Organization

There is some hope, though. Fortunately, 19-year-old Boyan Slat, founder and president of The Ocean Cleanup, claims to “have invented a method to clean up almost half of the great Pacific’s garbage patch in just 10 years, using currents to his advantage." Check out his video to the right on more about Boyan and his organization.

How does Boyan's invention work. Essentially they intend for the ocean's currents and for the wind to push the water through a platform containing barriers that will filter out the plastic and concentrate the trash from the ocean. Boyan's organization says there is no risk to wildlife, not even plankton.

Is it possible? Can Boyan and his crew really clean up the ocean? Well, according to the feasibility study done by The Ocean Cleanup organization (of which I admit I only read part of) Boyan and his group certainly seems to think so. Thye claim it can be cost effective, the process has already been tested and does work, and based off of a study they did of plastic they have already collected, a lot of the plastic collected can be reused for other purposes. Is it a scam? I certainly hope not. I really hope Boyan and his organization succeed for the sake of all marine life and for all of humanity.

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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Boyan's invention is not an excuse to create unnecessary waste.We still need to reduce, reuse, recycle. Composting it a great way to reduce waste! And don’t keep buying plastic soap bottles, buy bar soap, or buy a gallon jug and refill your soap pump, you’re still buying plastic, but less of it. Buy environmentally friendly, organic, or natural products. Never use plastic bags at the stores to bag your groceries! Get tote bags or other reusable bags that you can buy at pretty much any grocery store and use those. It's also cheaper for the store to not have to buy as much plastic which could trickle down to savings for you. Plus plastic kills. Turtles often eat plastic bags thinking they are jellyfish. Don't be a turtle killer, buy a reusable grocery bag. Even if your plastic bag ends up in a dump, it will eventually start to break down and leech toxic chemicals into the soil and eventually your drinking water. And don’t throw your plastic out. Recycle. If you don’t have recycling at your house, get it, or give it to a friend who has recycling. My sister has no recycling at her apartment. She brings all of her recyclables to our parents’ house and leaves it with their recyclables. If you have a dog, either reuse plastic bags from the store for poop disposal or buy biodegradable poop bags from your local pet store. Always make sure your waste is properly disposed.

Marine life suffers the most, but if they die out, so do we. What do we do if there is no water to drink because it's too toxic or no air to breath because there is no phytoplankton? So next time you want to buy a plastic water bottle, think again (there's toxins in that bottle of water as well, just so you know, that's why they can't be reused). Try buying a reusable metal (not plastic) liquid container. Also buy environmentally friendly products when you can. We could all learn a lesson from Germany. They get their water in glass bottles, which they then send back to the manufacturer, who cleans out the bottles, refills them, and then sends them out again. There's no waste there, and no plastic ending up in the environment (cradle to grave).

There is one more thing you can do. If you see garbage, pick it up. I take my dog to the beach every day and when I see plastic or metal or glass debris lying around, I collect it and either throw it out, or take it home to be recycled. If 7 million people pick up just 1 lb of plastic off the ground each year, think of the difference it could make. You could also organize a cleanup day in your community and have volunteers go around town picking up garbage. Everything helps.

Think of our environment and treat it with the respect it deserves!

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      Haruhisa 2 years ago

      I really wish there were more arlteics like this on the web.