mixed greens

Small victories and big challenges

Posted 5/12/21

Chalk up two tiny victories in my personal quest to reduce single-use plastics. First, I finally found a great bar shampoo. My search began years ago with some biodegradable “hair soap” …

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mixed greens

Small victories and big challenges


Chalk up two tiny victories in my personal quest to reduce single-use plastics. First, I finally found a great bar shampoo. My search began years ago with some biodegradable “hair soap” from a sporting goods store. Great on the off chance I might need to bathe in a mountain lake, but it left my hair looking and feeling like dry straw. Nowadays, there are hundreds of options for everyday use. I chose one made from fair-trade ingredients with no petrochemicals or added fragrance. I also switched to a fragrance-free laundry detergent tablet that works in a front-loading machine with cold water, costs less per load than liquid detergent and comes in a compostable paper envelope.

Saying goodbye to all those plastic bottles feels good, but it’s minuscule given the scale of the plastics problem, and three recent studies that look at microplastic water pollution show just how pervasive and complex the problem is.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Park Service (NPS) just released findings from a study of nine locations along the Delaware River and selected tributaries, part of a multi-year project to measure and track microplastics in American waterways. The study (www.bit.ly/usgsnps19) identifies the most common microplastics as fragments of discarded bottles and packaging, foam from polystyrene cups and takeaway containers, fibers from synthetic textiles such as polyester fleece or nylon, pellets or beads from personal-care products like face scrubs and toothpaste, films from bags and wrappers, and particles from tires—a term that includes rubberized asphalt and crumb rubber made from recycled car and truck tires, which is used in playgrounds, running tracks and as a cushioning infill material with artificial turf. The pathways for microplastic contamination include littering, stormwater runoff, industrial and domestic wastewater, land application of biosolids and atmospheric deposition of particles carried by the wind.

The USGS/NPS study examined water, sediment samples and biological uptake of microplastics in three aquatic species: smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu), white sucker (Catostomus commersonii) and eastern elliptio mussels (Elliptio complanata) collected at a subset of locations. Researchers found microplastics in 100 percent of water and sediment samples, in 94 percent of fish and 45 percent of mussels sampled. To my surprise, microfibers rather than fragments accounted for the highest levels of plastic in the samples and specimen.

The highest concentration of microplastic in sediment was from Bushkill Creek, PA, a highly urbanized location. Bushkill Creek sediment also revealed a high concentration of tire particles, which can come from normal tire wear deposited on the roads or from materials like rubberized asphalt and crumb rubber—materials that are starting to cause concern. This issue is explored in another new study that found that a massive die-off of coho salmon on the West Coast was caused by a leachate from tire particles. A team led by researchers from the University of Washington, Washington State University and the University of Toronto identified a toxic chemical preservative, 6PPD-quinone, which is added to tire rubber. Stormwater runoff in the northwest carries the toxic compound to freshwater streams where the coho return to spawn, causing them to die before they can lay their eggs (www.bit.ly/cohosalmon19). We don’t know yet what other organisms might be similarly vulnerable; we do know that 6PPD-quinone is used by tire manufacturers around the world and is ubiquitous in the built environment, and that climate change is increasing patterns of heavy rainfall and causing more stormwater runoff.

In March, Penn Environment released its own survey of 53 waterways across Pennsylvania (www.bit.ly/pennenvi). At least one form of microplastic contamination was found at every site sampled. The study points out that microplastics have been found around the world: in Philadelphia’s tap water; rainwater, fog and ocean air; sea salt; beer; wheat and lettuce crops; oysters and razor clams; and on Mt. Everest and the Marianas Trench. Microplastics can contain a range of toxic chemicals used in their processing, and they absorb other toxins and deliver them to the food chain. As in the USGS/NPS Delaware River study, microfibers were the most prevalent form, showing up in 100 percent of the Penn Environment samples.

Microfibers can tangle into tight balls in an organism’s gut, and they are too small to be removed by water filtration equipment or wastewater treatment facilities. Fast fashion, with its emphasis on inexpensive synthetic fabrics and planned obsolescence, turns about to be as damaging as the single-use bottles and food containers I’ve been trying to eliminate. I guess it’s time to make a new list.

plastic, microplastic, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service


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