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The Buzz

Diver Gives Us Shocking Look at How Much Trash is in Waterways

Screenshot via YouTube

It's no secret that plastic pollution in the world's waterways is a major problem, and while the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is something that's out of sight and out of mind for most people, one diver shows exactly why everyone should care about this issue.

Over the weekend, Rich Horner went for a dive off off Manta Point in Nusa Penida, Indonesia, and what he saw should make anyone cringe. 

"The ocean currents brought us in a lovely gift of a slick of jellyfish, plankton, leaves, branches, fronds, sticks, etc. ... Oh, and some plastic," he wrote on Facebook. "Some plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic cups, plastic sheets, plastic buckets, plastic sachets, plastic straws, plastic baskets, plastic bags, more plastic bags, plastic, plastic, so much plastic!"

"So much plastic" may be the understatement of the year.


While there is no definitive answer on how much plastic garbage ends up in the world's waterways each year, one estimate pegs it at eight million metric tons

"We see a few clouds of plastic and random plastic all the time during wet season, sadly," Horner said. "We may see the odd few big rafts/slicks per wet season, but I've never seen one anything like on this scale."

Within a day, though, all the plastic was gone. Or should we say, it moved on when the current dragged it to a new location.

And that's where the real problem lies. 

Plastic is the biggest single source of pollution in the world's waterways and can travel many, many miles. Making matters worse, plastic is non-biodegradable. Instead, sunlight breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces, meaning the problem is much larger than what Horner saw.

A large chunk of the plastic pollution in waterways is microplastics. These tiny pieces come not only from larger pieces being broke down, but microplastics also come from exfoliating beads in health and beauty products and pieces of synthetic fabric.

According to a 2016 study, one washing machine cycle can release more than 700,000 microplastic fibers into the water system.

All of this plastic takes a heavy toll on marine life, which can not only get engangled in the debris, but will also eat it, causing intestinal injury and death.

Data from the Center for Biological Diversity shows that fish in the North Pacific ingest between 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, while 60 percent of all seabird species have ingested plastic.

Plastic pollution also is something that must be dealt with locally, given the number of waterways that run through Will County. The issue was put on full display during last year's "Water|Ways" exhibit at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon.

During just one volunteer workday along the Des Plaines River, eight 40-gallon bags were filled with plastic garbage, and that didn't include items that were too big to fit in these bags. Some of that trash was then used to create the "Tower of Trash."


A close look at it shows just how much plastic we use — and how much ends up in waterways — and underscores the fact that a lot of these objects are single-use items such as bottle caps and straws.

How can you help, besides using less plastic? 

Come out to the River Shoreline Cleanup on April 21 at Rock Run Rookery Preserve, where we'll be collecting trash at the water's edge.


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