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Recent Study Sheds Light on Plastic Pollution

Written by Chronicle Staff. Posted in Featured

Published on September 01, 2020 with No Comments

It’s no secret that plastic waste is everywhere, and plastic pollution has emerged as one of the foremost environmental issues affecting ecosystems and communities around the globe.  A new study from Valparaiso University has revealed the extent of the problem in Porter County. Earlier this year (Feb. 2020), Dr. Julie Peller and her research team of environmental chemistry students conducted a study that aimed to measure and categorize the plastic waste that found its way into Porter County’s environment.

Dr. Peller’s team collected samples alongside roads throughout the Salt Creek Watershed as well as samples from the Valparaiso Compost site, managed by the Recycling and Waste Reduction District of Porter County. The large plastic (macro) was counted and identified by recycling codes or chemical analysis.  The micro-plastics (smaller than 5mm) required further processing as they are small particulates. Researchers discovered a variety of plastics with recycling codes 1-7 alongside the roads and in the compost. Recycling code #5, Polypropylene, a type of plastic frequently used in disposable packaging, was the most abundant variety collected in both sampling locations.

Plastics are renowned for their versatility and durability owing to their unique synthetic chemical makeup, but the same durable chemical makeup means they do not biodegrade like paper or cloth. Instead plastics physically break down into tinier and tinier pieces that persist in the environment for years. These invisible pieces then accumulate in the air, water, and soil, often finding their way into the food chain after being consumed or inhaled by organisms. The long-term health consequences of ingesting micro-plastics are not well understood.

Dr. Peller hopes that consumers will give thought to how their purchasing choices impact the amount of plastic that gets produced and discarded.

“Disposable plastic packaging is used for drinks, chips, energy bars, to-go foods, and so much more. If we think that the incomplete disposal of a few wrappers/cups/lids is not a big deal, multiply those few packages by the thousands of others in a community who also consume packaged foods. Once these plastic materials enter the environment, they fragment into smaller pieces, but do not decompose. The accumulated plastic waste has unfortunately become normal for the younger generations, and this pollution problem will only get worse unless our consumption of plastic (especially single use plastic) changes.” Peller said.

Single use plastics include items like solo cups, straws, and plastic plates and eating utensils. Contrary to popular misconceptions, these low quality plastics cannot be placed in curbside bins, so recycling districts encourage consumers to avoid them entirely.

Ron Taylor, Public Education Coordinator for the Recycling and Waste Reduction District of Porter County, emphasizes that citizens should think beyond just recycling if they hope to have an impact on the amount of plastic pollution in their community. “While recycling is a vital piece of the puzzle in combating plastic pollution, it has limitations. The American recycling industry has been hit hard by recent shifts in the international markets for materials, and recycling programs can only continue to function so long as there are viable markets for the materials Americans put in their bin. This is why we’ve made an effort to emphasize the importance of re-thinking, reducing and reusing.  Re-thinking is about changing our habits as consumers by purchasing less plastic, which Reduces what gets manufactured in the first place. Reusing involves finding clever ways to repurpose plastic items instead of throwing them away after one use. All approaches aim to sharply cut down on the amount of plastic. “

Taylor added that citizens can further help recycling programs by making a concerted effort to recycle properly. “Many people have misconceptions about what can be placed in their curbside bin. Improperly recycled items like plastic bags can damage machinery at sorting facilities. Recyclables that haven’t been properly cleaned can ruin an entire load of adjacent materials, which then have to be disposed of in a landfill. Both scenarios can cause a serious drain of time and resources from municipal recycling programs.”

The Recycling and Waste Reduction District of Porter County maintains a website that can answer many questions individuals or organizations may have about recycling properly.  The district also hosts an Adopt a County Road program.  This program allows for groups and individuals to adopt a road and assist in cleaning up the plastics and garbage that are found along the roads.   Visit www.portercountyrecycling.org for further information.

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