The plastic pollution problem is worse than many people realize.
Many of you may have read about the floating islands of plastic in the Pacific Ocean.
Recently there was an account of the discovery of 115 plastic cups found inside a dead whale that washed up on a beach in Indonesia.
But most of stray plastic pieces in the world lie in less dramatic numbers and locations.
Although the most obvious problem for many people is esthetic, the real problem is ecological and perhaps medical.
I recently attended an eye-opening educational session on plastic that was presented by the University of Florida Extension Office and Florida Sea Grant at Bok Tower Gardens.
The program presented by scientist Maia McGuire focused on microplastics, which she explained is the hidden threat that the proliferation of plastic waste poses.
Larger plastic articles eventually break apart into smaller and smaller pieces, but other plastic materials are made small in the first place and are found in common products such as cosmetics and toothpaste.
Look at label. If you see polyethylene, the product contains plastic microbeads.
There are plastic fibers in clothing made from synthetic materials. They come off during wash cycles and go down the drain. The material is so small filters at sewer plants can’t remove it.
The issue is this material remains somewhere forever unless it is incinerated, which poses other environmental issues.
Some plastic waste ends up in landfills, where an increasing amount is going now that the variety of plastic materials accepted in curbside recycling programs is declining because it really can’t be recycled.
Smaller pieces may end up in sewer discharges, sewer sludge or stormwater runoff. That means they eventually end up elsewhere in the natural environment.
The reason this is an issue is because this means the plastic pieces end up in the food chain, which means it ends up in our digestive systems.
Scientists have actually documented from recent research with cooperating subjects that microplastics are being consumed by people because they are showing up in human waste.
The problem is that microplastic contamination has become nearly impossible to avoid.
It has been found in tap water, bottled water and even in beer.
The Florida Microplastic Awareness Project at www.plasticaware.org provides additional information.
The health effects are still unknown because it is unclear how much of the material bioaccumulates and how much is simply excreted.
However, it is known that toxins often attach themselves to pieces of microplastics.
So what can the average person do about this?
The most obvious is to avoid as much plastic materials as possible.
For years the 3Rs were reduce, reuse and recycle, but now there’s a fourth, which is refuse.
Most people can drink without a straw, and there are reusable alternatives.
The same thing goes for single-use water bottles or other beverage containers. It may be impossible to avoid using them in all situations, but you can certainly use fewer of them.
Bring reusable bags for shopping trips.
Try to avoid products with excessive plastic packaging.
Another thing you can do is to watch where your plastic waste goes and to encourage efforts to raise awareness about the improper disposal of all kinds of wastes.
If you wonder how so much plastic waste gets into the food chain, take a walk along the edge of a water body along any busy highway.
I was conducting an informal nature survey along such a corridor recently at the headwaters of the Peace River. There was trash everywhere and most of it was plastic.
Some of it had been thrown out of windows by passersby.
Some of it may have fallen or blown from passenger trucks, freight trucks or garbage trucks.
A lot of it was only a few heavy rainstorms away from ending up in the water, where it will float away, eventually break into pieces and end up in the food chain or the water supply downstream on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Even if we can’t do everything, we can do something and we can certainly do better.
Dade Battlefield hike
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park will offer a night hike from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 13 to give visitors a chance to see or hear nocturnal wildlife such as owls, bats and other creatures.
Following the hike, visitors will have an opportunity to check out that evening’s Geminid meteor shower.
Bring a chair, blanket, insect repellent and flashlight.
The park is located at 7200 County Road 603 near Bushnell in Sumter County north of Lakeland. Admission is $3 per vehicle or free with an annual Florida state park pass.
Check out Tom Palmer’s blog at http://www.ancientislands.org/conservation/