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Leaving no more than footprints to fight plastic pollution on land (and in the sea)

When a close friend recently proposed a long weekend getaway to the Pacific Northwest, I quickly told her it was a go. After a few months acclimating to my new research position at Roskilde University in Denmark, and more generally, my new city life in Copenhagen, some relaxation in deep nature was much needed.

I study plastic pollution as a photojournalist, so it’s almost impossible for me to be anywhere without my eye catching some insidious polymer fragment. Mostly, I’ve looked for it on the high seas, but also on beaches, in deserts and even on the seafloor.

I’ve found that there is plastic everywhere—even in the most remote reaches of this beautiful part of the world.

Thick green ferns slick with rain shimmered on the floor of a forest just north of Vancouver as sunlight sliced through the canopy leaves. My eyes were fixed on the ground in front of me, because the hike was rough, the kind of trail where tripping and twisting an ankle was an unfortunate possibility.

Just a few hundred meters in past the trailhead, a light blue fleck caught my eye.

Photo: Erica Cirino

Plastic. I stopped, plucked it from the mud and slipped the plastic fragment into my pocket. It had likely broken off from a larger plastic item, the result of weathering from time spent outdoors. Wind, water, sunlight and other elements set forth geochemical processes that break the bonds holding molecules of plastic together.

A piece of plastic 5 millimeters or less in diameter, like the piece I found in the forest, is classified as “microplastic.” Microplastic is a threat to living beings mainly because it contains toxic plasticizers and absorbs dangerous chemicals such as PCBs and heavy metals from the immediate environment, and passes those chemicals to living beings that consume it. Bits of microplastic are like “little poison pills” to wildlife and probably also people, plastic expert Sam Mason once told me.

“Hold up!” I hollered to my friend, who was ambling on ahead, as I again paused. This time, I picked up a candy bar wrapper. Then a drink bottle tucked into a pile of leaves. And on and on….

Photo: Erica Cirino

Photo: Erica Cirino

Mostly, I spend my time looking for plastic in aquatic ecosystems—in the oceans and lakes, and on beaches. The trail was far less covered with trash than most other places I’ve searched. But, for a rough cliff path with few visitors, it seemed moderately polluted. And while much of the trash was intact, it was clear that some of it had been there a while and was breaking up into small pieces, called microplastic.

Aquatic ecosystems are a major focus for plastic pollution researchers, terrestrial ecosystems less so. Microplastic is quite visible in water and is rather simple to collect with nets and sieves. On land, tiny fragments of plastic are often buried in dirt or spread across large geographic areas, making them more challenging to notice and pick up.

Photo: Erica Cirino

Photo: Erica Cirino

Photo: Erica Cirino

Scientists estimate there may be as many as 51 trillion pieces of microplastic in the oceans—but there is probably a lot more plastic on land. New research suggests there could be 4 to 23 times more microplastic on land than in the oceans. Both plants and animals are adversely affected by plastic pollution, accumulating microplastic and the chemicals it contains in their bodies when they eat. Plastics of all shapes and sizes imperil land animals, causing entanglements, injuries, breathing problems, and poisoning or internal blockages when ingested. For plants, absorbing plastic from soil can hamper growth and normal functioning.

Much of the microplastic found on land comes from large plastic sheets used by the agricultural industry to hold moisture, protect plants from cold and prevent weed growth on fields. Other plastics used on land include construction materials, biomedical supplies, food packaging and household products.

Plastic gets scattered across land when people litter, mostly by roadsides and campsites. But it also happens when what we toss “away” unintentionally blows, rolls, washes or is carried by wildlife from our trash or recycling cans, and landfills, into nature–both land and sea. Waste management across much of the world is not tightly controlled enough to prevent significant losses of plastic into natural ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic.

The best way to prevent more plastic pollution is to stop using plastic, especially when out in nature. There are plenty of plastic-free choices you can make in your everyday life, from wearing plastic-free clothing to purchasing food that’s not wrapped. Opt for reusable utensils, bags, containers and straws over single-use. Companies are beginning to replace petroleum-based plastic with biodegradable plastics made from starch, sugar or acid. These so-called bioplastics act, feel and look like traditional plastic, but instead break down into benign compounds in nature rather than break up into dangerous little pieces that endanger living things.

Common ravens and other terrestrial wildlife consume microplastic, just like marine wildlife. Sometimes they mistake it for food. Microplastic also appears to have an attractive odor to some animals. Photo: Erica Cirino

On my hikes throughout British Columbia, I packed snacks and water in reusable containers. When my friend and I had trash to toss, we never let it touch the ground and made sure we put it into a secure trash or recycling bin when we finished our outings.

Plastic has become one of humanity’s most long-lasting impressions on the earth. While traversing the trails of British Columbia, my friend and I were careful to leave no more than our footprints.

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