Marcia Wolfe with her dogs
Marcia Wolfe

The other day I was driving to the grocery store, starting first through the neighborhood. I noticed paper trash in the gutter in front of some of the homes lining the street. A squashed cup here. A wad of paper across the street and another paper cup. Then a squashed aluminum can in the driving lane. Hey, we can collect and recycle that. And, look! A five-dollar bill at the curb! I lucked out!

Down around the corner on the main street, there was even more. A couple of flat pieces of paperon the pavement. A sweatshirt (or something) hanging over the curb. More scattered paper along the gutter and a large plastic bag. Out of the neighborhood and around the corner on the thoroughfare, there was more. Some small boxes thrown up on the sidewalk, but the trash isn’t limited to the street and gutter. Some is thrown into the landscaping planted alongside the wall, beneath the shrub, next to the tree, a plastic soda bottle thrown onto a front lawn, a piece of paper hanging from a tree branch, another water bottle at the curb. If you look around it’s pretty ugly. It’s everywhere, not just in the alley or the ghettoor downtown. It’s everywhere, including on the way to the grocery store, and you see it on the way to work. It’s scattered all over the parks and along the Kern River trail, places we go to walk, jog, ride a bike or relax and enjoy nature and the scenery, or try to.

A few years ago a friend of mine had a beautiful Australian shepherd. She had a great and gently loving personality with people, in particular. But one day, she ingested a sandwich bag which someone had thrown out of their car, and she picked it up. It then got stuck in her gut and killed her. It’s so sad that something as simple as throwing trash away properly could have saved her. Realize trash can easily be harmful in more ways than one. Some trash is poisonous to pets and wildlife, like cigarette butts! They are everywhere, and if they don’t kill, at the least they can cause nausea, vomiting and seizures in animals. So many wildlife, including birds, don’t realize it is not food. When it rains, they can get caught up in runoff, end up in a storm drain or waterway, and eventually into the ocean or lakes, where other species may mistake them for food, as often occurs with pieces of plastic we discard.

We’ve all heard about the large patches of disposed plastic floating in the ocean. Some studies estimate something like 12 billion pounds of plastic in the ocean, and it’s increasing every day. Notably places that had no plastic as little as six years ago are now covered with it. Just recently, a new patch of plastic the size of the entire country of Mexico has been located in the South Pacific Ocean. As some plastic sinks (products labelled No.1, as they are heavier than water), they cannot be easily located. Over time all plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, from the size of your little fingernail to microscopic in size, which can’t be seen. They call them microplastics when the pieces are less than 5mm in size. The different plastics take differing lengths of time to break down. But in reality, we have no idea how much plastic has sunk and is floating around in our oceans and lakes. It’s estimated that about eight million metric tons of plastic wastes enter the oceans from land every year. But frankly, after reading several articles, we have no idea how much is entering our waters. Just look at the trash along the Kern River and even in our water and irrigation canals.

You may think,“Well, who cares?” We don’t live in the ocean. You can’t see what’s under water, and the rest of it is microscopically small. A lot of it you can’t even see without a microscope! So, what if birds, fish and other sea life die from ingesting or being covered with plastic waste that we can’t even see? Humans don’t eat most of those birds or fish there. 

This past week, I read two articles with alarming reports about plastic. One group of scientists studying in the Arctic unexpectedly documented micro plastics in ice cores in the Arctic, and in northern Germany, Norway, the Bavarian and Swiss Alps and the North Sea island of Heligoland. Apparently, the scientists doing the study expected to find some plastics. They were extremely surprised by the enormous concentrations. The plastic is being sucked up off the ground and water into the air and is coming down in snow at these cold climes. Others think they may have blown in on the winds. Then it was recently reported by the USGS that they coincidentally found plastic in rain while researching nitrogen at eight locations in the Rocky Mountains and in the metropolitan reach between Boulder and Denver. The source of these microplastics has yet to be determined, but they were mostly fibrous, indicating that they might be from clothing; it’s unknown. They were studying nitrogen and weren’t expecting to find microplastics. 

We haven’t even touched on nanoplastics, which are even smaller than microplastics. Nano plastics are so small that once inside a plant or animal (read includes humans), they can move inside of cells. When tiny particles are in snow, rain and the air, we could be breathing them. If they are in rain and snow, it’s likely we are. Aside from their presence, the impacts to humans are almost completely unknown. Some early tests show impacts to small mammals from eating microplastics. How toxic they are depends upon the type of plastic it is. Whether it’s BPE, if it came from a container, or what chemical was contained in it, as plastics may absorb the chemicals they hold. When it comes to microplastics, nanoplastics and humans, plants and wildlife, we know next to nothing. It has spread rapidly worldwide and is complex.

So, when it comes to your garbage, put it where it can be disposed of properly. Plant and vegetable materials can be used to enhance soils as mulch. Recycle your glass, paper, plastics and anything else you can. Ford is a great example of upcycling as they now create certain automobile parts from recycled plastic, using 1.2 billion plastic bottles per year in their automobiles. Many more options are possible by numerous manufacturers. It’s doable. But it’s not a simple problem such as its just in Bakersfield, Kern County or the United States. It is a worldwide problem.

I’m not going to include any photographs in this article. You get the picture already. So now get out there and teach your children, parents, friends and neighbors not to trash the environment their lives depend upon. Because they do, maybe more than we know.

SOURCEMarcia Wolfe, Valley Ag Voice
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