Can recycling really help to reduce negative human impacts on water quality?
By: Tracey Coronado
08 August 2023
Of all the things the creatures of this planet cannot live without, the most important are air, water, and food. These three items work hand in hand. Polluted air leads to polluted water as
chemicals in the air can infiltrate or attach to water vapor (or evaporated water) that will later fall as precipitation. Air pollution also consists of particulate matter, much of which will eventually fall to the ground, contaminating both soils and waterbodies. Without clean air, clean water, and clean soils we cannot produce the high quantity of quality food that is required to sustain an exponentially growing population. Although all of these components are critical to our health and survival, in this blog post we will explore the effects of plastic on our water sources and attempt to answer this question: Can recycling plastic actually help to reduce litter and improve water quality?
Before we try to determine the answer to that question, let’s define the problem. Water quality can be impacted by a number of factors aside from the aforementioned air pollution. Point source pollution occurs when pollutants are regularly released directly into a water source. For example, the discharge of effluents from industrial activity into a nearby river would be considered point source pollution. Nonpoint source pollution passes into waterbodies when water runoff flows over surfaces treated with pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers, or impervious surfaces, such as roads and parking lots, where an assortment of chemicals and debris are left behind by motor vehicles and pedestrians. Litter is also a nonpoint source of pollution that can be left directly in waterways by careless visitors recreating on the water or left inland and swept into waterways by stormwater runoff or wind.
You may be wondering how these issues impact our own neck of the woods. For information about local water conditions, we turned to Todd Wilkinson, project manager at the James River Basin Partnership. This not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization focuses on promoting public water quality incentives, providing education and outreach about water quality, carrying out litter cleanups in and near our local rivers, and implementing special projects to heighten water quality via stream channel and stream bank improvements in the James River Basin area. During an interview, Wilkinson noted that the results of an assessment of local waterways showed that one of the most common pollutants found in urban streams was single use plastics, such as food wrappers and beverage bottles. While the term “urban streams” might make it seem as though the problem is isolated to streams located in cities, the reality is that urban streams connect to non-urban streams and rivers. These streams and rivers then connect to other rivers that connect to oceans. Specifically, for those of us residing in the Springfield, Missouri area, many of our small streams connect to the James River. The James River connects to the White River, the White River connects to the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
Regionally speaking, it may be a small portion of the trash in our streams that makes it to the ocean, but if we include inland trash that works its way to the ocean from communities everywhere, it adds up very quickly. Many of us are aware of the garbage patches in the ocean (Great Pacific Garbage Patch, anyone?). Even trash that does not find its way out of our smaller streams can have negative impacts on local ecosystems. There are a few reasons for this.
One way trash in our local waterways impacts our ecosystems is due to the fact that plastic does not fully decompose. It can, however, break into progressively smaller pieces until it reaches a small enough size (less than five millimeters, or 0.2 inches, in length) to be considered a microplastic. In water, microplastics are distributed and redistributed as currents or waves move them along and are frequently ingested by aquatic organisms. Microplastics contain a variety of toxic chemicals that can cause reproductive issues (D’Angelo, & Meccariello, n.d.)[TC1] and decreased nutrient absorption among many types of aquatic life when ingested. Ingestion of microplastics can also cause digestive system blockages as the plastic accumulates in the body over time since it cannot be completely broken down. The problem is further compounded by the fact that microplastics can absorb additional toxic chemicals that are present in the environment (Tel-Aviv University, 2022)[TC2].
The long-term effects of microplastic accumulation in human bodies are largely yet to be determined, but there have been various scientific papers written about the effects of microplastics via in viva studies on rodents and in vitro studies on human cells. Both of these categories have shown that microplastics can cause, “inflammation, oxidative stress [increased reactive oxygen species (ROS) production], lipid metabolism disturbances, gut microbiota dysbiosis, and neurotoxicity (Lee et al., 2023)[TC3]”.
Plastics that have not yet broken down also threaten aquatic life as they present a risk for suffocation, entanglement, and bodily injury (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, 2023) [TC4]. Not only is it tragic that these creatures are being harmed, but decreased aquatic life, even down to the smallest creatures, such as plankton, will lead to changes throughout the food web. These changes will continue to magnify until they eventually cause decreased availability of important food sources for other aquatic life and terrestrial animals, including humans. The threats to aquatic life are further exacerbated by other ongoing environmental problems such as sea level rise, nutrient pollution, and warming oceans along with myriad feedback mechanisms that occur as a kind of domino effect from these issues.
Now that we know a little about the problems plastic can cause in our waters, let’s move to the next step in finding an answer to the question at hand: Reviewing some of the work I did while researching for my thesis at Missouri State University. In the summer of 2022 a survey regarding various environmental and sustainability issues around the Lake Taneycomo watershed area was distributed to nearly 100 individuals. Most of the people who received the survey worked in resource management (such as the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, parks departments, or related local offices), or were participants in public administration (such as mayors, aldermen, and council members) in the watershed area.
One of the many issues addressed in this survey was the perception of the impacts of litter and recycling on water quality. So just how much of a problem is litter perceived to be? Survey results show that 72% see litter in riparian zones (lands near stream, river, or lake banks) to be at least a moderate problem. When participants were asked the open-ended question, “What are the largest impacts tourism has on the Lake Taneycomo watershed area?”, responses varied from erosion to carbon footprint to exploitation of resources and loss of riparian corridors. By far the most included impact, however, which was listed in seven out of nine responses, was litter and waste disposal issues. Furthermore, 63% responded that they either strongly agree or somewhat agree that recycling initiatives can contribute to heightened water quality.
Information would still be required, though, to determine whether recycling can really be helpful to water quality. What about the carbon footprints for the lifecycles of virgin plastics versus that of recycled plastics? There are several types of plastic, but for our purposes, we will look specifically at the most popularly used for beverage bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Whether because it is one of the most commonly used commercial plastics or because it is less confusing to recycle, PET is also the most commonly recycled type of plastic. Even given that, at a recovery rate of only 28.6% as of 2021 (Resource Recycling Editorial Staff, 2023) [TC5], there is still a lot to be desired. One study that measured the carbon footprint difference between virgin PET and recycled PET noted a 5.5-fold difference with the recycled material being the clear winner of the smaller footprint. While the production of the virgin plastic was estimated to have caused about 2.008 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram produced, the recycled plastic was only estimated to have caused about 0.54 kilograms per kilogram produced (Storm, 2017) [TC6].
All this being said, there is still a better solution to the plastic problem: buy less plastic. While recycling is much better for our planet than creating brand new plastic, reducing consumption should always be the first step to decreasing the amount of waste we produce and living more sustainably. What we do buy we should buy responsibly, as much as possible, from producers who are aligned with sustainability. What a lot of everyday consumers don’t realize is that they have nearly all the power. When we buy items, we are essentially saying to producers that we are okay with how said items were produced. When we consciously buy more sustainable products, other businesses take note and follow suit so they can maximize their profits. After all, what is business if there are no profits? This is where individual actions can speak the loudest. As family and friends start to notice the changes one person makes, they may begin to think more about sustainability themselves. For each person that makes a change, more people will make their own changes. Collective action has to begin somewhere, why not with you?
About the Author:
Tracey Coronado is an environmental scientist, sustainability advocate, and marketing specialist in Springfield, Missouri. She studied Business and Marketing at Ozarks Technical Community College and Geography, Sustainability, and Geographic Information Sciences at Missouri State University. She is the current Project Specialist Intern at Ozarks Headwaters Recycling and Materials Management District where she assists with administrative duties and networking functions, plans special projects to bring awareness to recycling in Southwestern Missouri, and does marketing through various mediums.
[TC1] D'Angelo S, Meccariello R. Microplastics: A Threat for Male Fertility. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Mar 1;18(5):2392. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18052392. PMID: 33804513; PMCID: PMC7967748. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7967748/
[TC3] Lee, Y., Cho, J., Sohn, J., & Kim, C. (2023). Health Effects of Microplastic Exposures: Current Issues and Perspectives in South Korea. Yonsei Medical Journal, 64(5), 301–308. https://doi.org/10.3349/ymj.2023.0048
[TC4] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program. (2023, July 28). Garbage Patches: What and Where Are Garbage Patches. https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/patch.html
[TC5] Resource Recycling Editorial Staff. (2023, April 4). Data Corner: PET bottle recovery rate. Resource Recycling, January 2023. https://resource-recycling.com/recycling/2023/02/28/data-corner-pet-bottle-recovery-rate/#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20PET%20bottle,an%20industry%20report%20published%20Dec.
[TC6] Storm, B. K. (2017). Production of recyclates – compared with virgin Plastics – a LCA Study. MATEC Web of Conferences, 112(04024). https://doi.org/10.1051/matecconf/20171120402 IManE&E 2017 4
[TC2] Tel-Aviv University. (2022). Microplastics increase the toxicity of organic pollutants in the environment by a factor of 10, study finds. Science Daily. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/02/220216112233.htm>