Guest columnist Will Daniels: Rubbish in our Rivers

  • Nick Whitman of Shutesbury picks up trash along East Hadley Road in Amherst, near the north bank of the Fort River, during the Connecticut River Conservancy’s “Source to Sea Cleanup” on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. The Amherst cleanup was organized by the Fort River Watershed Association. Gazette file photo

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The problem of plastic in our waterways is not a new one, but the science of plastic pollution is still emerging.

Recent global estimates suggest that between 0.5 and 4 million tons of plastic debris move through rivers each year. This plastic waste is not without harmful effects, which generally fall into four categories: ingestion, wildlife entanglement, leakage of toxic additives into the water and recreation hazards.

You can help stop plastic pollution at its source by pitching in with a watershed cleanup. Read on!

Scientists classify plastic debris in rivers based on size, with the smallest sizes being nanoplastic (less than 0.1 micron), microplastic (up to a quarter inch), and the largest being macroplastic (over 2 inches). Debris is also classified by shape into solid pieces, pellets, fibers, foams and films.

The size and shape of the pieces can help determine the origin of the trash and its fate and impact on the environment. In urban rivers, styrofoam particles are notoriously abundant, although by weight, intact solid pieces dominate.

Over time, plastics not recycled or contained in landfills either will be broken down by sunlight and microbes or will reach the ocean floor where their fate is completely unknown. Decomposition can take anywhere from tens to thousands of years, depending on the material. Some examples include: cigarette butts, 15 years; plastic bags, 15 to 500 years; foam cups, 50 years; plastic bottles, 450 years; dirty diapers, 600 years; fishing line, 600 years; styrofoam — does not biodegrade at all!

I live on the banks of the Fort River, whose watershed spans parts of Shutesbury, Pelham, Belchertown, Amherst and Hadley. I generally think of the Fort River as a clean, healthy river, despite a few persistent issues. Therefore, I was surprised by the tremendous haul of garbage removed from the stream and surrounding land areas by volunteers in the 2019 Fort River Cleanup.

That single-day effort more than filled a municipal dumpster, much of it in the form of bottles, bags and styrofoam. Clearly, even the relatively rural Fort River watershed is impacted by plastic pollution.

Continual effort is needed. This year, we encourage all members of the community to take action in keeping the Fort River clear of plastic detritus by participating in the 2020 socially-distant Fort River Cleanup. The cleanup effort has been underway during the month of September, and there is still time to register and help rid the river of trash. Visit fortriver.org/cleanup to register and learn more.

If you live outside the Fort River watershed, check out the Connecticut River Conservancy’s Source to Sea cleanup happening all September, ctriver.org.

Will Daniels is a postdoctoral fellow in geological sciences at UMass Amherst.