Plastic Waste and the Environment
In the Fall of 2021, the KWRC staff assessed streams and rivers in our watershed for macroplastics. The term macroplastic defines any piece of plastic waste that measures over 5mm, such as plastic bags, silage wrap or water bottles. Our Waste Diversion Project Coordinator and technicians have walked approximately 40km of streams and tributaries to determine where the plastic problem areas are. To date, staff have conducted plastic assessments on Parsons Brook, Wards Creek, Trout Creek, Smiths Creek and the Kennebecasis River.
KWRC staff conducted these assessments to learn the amount and types of litter in our waterways. Our primary goal was to determine the areas where agricultural plastic was most prominent so that we could initiate a course of action to combat the build up of these plastics in the environment.
Disposal Pilot Project
Silage wrap found in Smiths Creek
Since the Fall of 2021, every tributary we have assessed in the Kennebecasis Watershed has had agricultural plastic within it, as well as many other types of macroplastic. These findings indicate that a portion of agricultural plastics used in the Kennebecasis and surrounding area are not being disposed of properly.
Our Waste Diversion Project Coordinator with the help of the RSC8 Waste Management Facility in Sussex has created a pilot project for the proper disposal of agricultural plastics. The program began on April 4th, 2022; farmers are now able to drop off their agricultural plastics at RSC8 free of charge on Mondays, until February 27th, 2022. Through this project we hope to divert a significant amount of plastic from entering the environment as well as better understand disposal methods that may work to keep our watershed free of plastic waste in the future.
Registration is required to utilize this program.
Other Plastic Pollution
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Through this project we have discovered an abundance of Polar Pop styrofoam cups littered along the waterways. This is a great concern to the environment as well as to ourselves for many reasons.
Styrene, the main ingredient used to produce styrofoam, is a known carcinogen. Other toxins used in the production of styrofoam leach into the drink that the cup contains and end up in our bodies. Unfortunately, these toxins likely end up in our bodies anyway, through our drinking water - when styrofoam waste is littered in the environment, toxins are released into the ground and waterways, posing health risks such as liver, kidney, and circulatory related issues.
Impacts on the Environment
Plastic is harmful to the environment - everybody knows that, but do we understand why? Let's explore this further.
Rivers act like a system of conveyor belts that transport everything from sediment to salmon into the ocean. Any plastic waste in the environment is eventually swept into these waterways by wind or rain or other means where it will stay until the whole item or particles of it end up in the ocean.
In the ocean environment, plastics sink to the bottom where they are essentially 'out of sight, out of mind' for us, but they still pose health risks to the organisms that live there. Furthermore, plastics that litter our beautiful rivers and coasts may appear deceptively appetizing to birds and fish and other animals.
Millions of animals are killed each year by plastic, whether it be by ingestion, suffocation or poisoning. Over 700 species have been affected by plastics in the environment, including fish, birds, and marine animals.
By 2025, for every 3 pounds of fish in the ocean there will be 1 pound of plastic, and 99% of seabirds will have ingested plastic.
When discussing the impacts of plastic, the main focus tends to be the ocean and coastal environments as that is where the most plastic accumulates. Even so, the risks of plastic in the environment exist wherever plastic is found.
Plastics Within the Watershed
Non-profit groups like the KWRC can't clean up an ocean full of plastic waste, but we can do the work where it counts: watersheds are often the starting point for litter to make its way into the ocean, as a complex series of streams and tributaries ensure the plastics have a path to the river, which is destined for the ocean. That's why we advocate for awareness within the community, so that we can reduce plastic waste in our watershed. Not only that, plastics pose health risks to land-based animals as well, meaning the wildlife and livestock right here in our own watershed.
Plastics in the environment don't only affect marine life - it can be hazardous to all animals including mammals like cows and pets, as well as land-based birds. Animals can die from plastic by entanglement, suffocation, or ingestion. When plastic is ingested, animals have the sensation of a full stomach yet they are not receiving essential nutrients. The material cannot be digested, which can create a build up of plastic in the stomach and the animals starve. Additionally, the plastic bits can cause lacerations and other internal injuries leading to infection.
Another troubling concern associated with plastics in the environment is soil and water pollution. Plastic is produced using toxins that are not meant to be integrated into the environment, and yet plastic that is not properly disposed of can leach these toxic chemicals into the soil we use for growing food or into the water we drink. Common chemicals in plastic material are phtalates and BPA which are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can cause hormonal mutations in fish as well as cancer in humans.
Plastic can also block storm drains and culverts, which can cause or worsen flooding and bank erosion. Properly disposing of garbage is key in keeping plastics out of our environment.
Looks like this bag has been in the environment for a long time
The above photos were taken in Trout Creek during an erosion assessment June 2021. Circled areas show the plastic that becomes entangled in blockages. Note the nasty piece of styrofoam as well.
The KWRC will continue our efforts in fighting for plastics reduction and waste diversion. We plan to continue to advocate for public awareness through our various education outreach events such as the Shoreline Clean Up, which allows volunteers to get together and contribute to making a positive difference.
In 2021, the KWRC along with the help of community members, removed 3000 pounds of garbage from the environment within our watershed!
Microplastics are bits of plastic that are measured smaller than 5mm, formed by the breakdown of macroplastics. Plastic doesn't decompose in an organic sense, but it does break down into smaller pieces and particles over time with the help of sunlight, wind, or wave action. Microplastics in the environment cause what is called bioaccumulation, which is the build up of plastics within the stomachs or tissues of animals higher in the food-chain. For instance, a small fish may eat a piece of plastic, many of those small fish are eaten by a bigger fish, and that fish is eaten by an eagle - all the plastics consumed by each of those animals ends up in the eagle.
Humans are included in this food-chain and therefore are susceptible to the health risks involved with bioaccumulation. These microplastics are ending up in our systems through the food we eat and the water we drink. A report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund found that we consume about 5 grams of microplastics each week - that's the equivalent of a credit card.
Read about it here.