You’re shopping at a local convenience store and grab a cold Poland Springs plastic water bottle. You chug the water ‘till your heart's content and casually throw the bottle into a trash bin. You may not have realized it, but you have likely just contributed to groundwater pollution, which is the contamination of underground water by outside waste. “How?” you may ask. I’ll explain.
According to PBS NewsHour, humans have created over 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste, as of 2017. Even today, 60% of the plastic we make is still on our planet somewhere. Boston alone produces about 1.2 million tons of waste every year, according to WBUR. The waste production is expected to keep increasing year by year as the population increases, but Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wants to cut that amount to 20% by 2035.
Items like plastic water bottles, disposable coffee cups, tea bags and even clothes made from nylon or polyester — all of which contain plastic — are thrown away by the thousands every day in Boston. When plastic waste is thrown in a trash bin, it may get dumped in a landfill, and since plastic takes hundreds of years to break down naturally, the plastic will remain in the landfill. However, as the plastic degrades over years of weathering, elements like carbon, nitrogen and sulfur start to seep into the ground and pollute the natural reservoir of groundwater beneath the landfill.
Boston, as well as cities like New York and Chicago, use these groundwater sources as drinking water. I don’t think anyone would want to drink trash water, at least not me. Contaminated water can result in serious health problems often causing the spread of diseases such as typhoid. According to a study conducted by The Lancet, contaminated water caused 1.8 million deaths in 2015 alone worldwide. In addition, plastic also harms the environment around us. It is evident that plastic is a leading environmental problem, particularly in the oceans where unimaginable mountains of trash harm marine wildlife such as turtles, fish and local birds like seagulls. According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, over 1 million marine animals, including mammals, fish, sharks, turtles and birds, are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean.
Nicolette Pocius, environmental science teacher at the John D. O’Bryant School explained that plastic waste produces microplastics that easily escape through water treatment plants and enter the ocean.
“These microplastics can be ingested by animals that are lower on the food chain and then go through something called biomagnification so that they’re in small amounts in small animals and then larger animals eat the smaller animals and get more,” she said. “So by the time we eat those large animals we’re actually eating a greater amount of the plastic than the small animals.”
Essentially, we are not only drinking trash water, we’re eating trash as well!
So now that we get why plastic is a problem, what do we do? Jahlisse Bruton and Felix Yanes, seniors at the O’Bryant and co-presidents of the O’Bryant Recycling Club, say there are many things someone can do. “I’ve seen a lot of people with Hydro Flasks or reusable cups and bottles,” Bruton said. “Since a lot of students go to Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning, rather than ordering on the go you can ask if you can put this in my cup instead of getting a plastic cup.” Something so small can really help. A standard 18-ounce Hydro Flask sells for around $30 each, so instead of buying non-reusable plastic bottles, invest in a Hydro Flask or other reusable water bottle to be more eco-friendly!
If everyone in Boston used reusable straws or bottles, we would produce far less plastic waste. The thousands of pounds of plastic that would have been used to make those straws and bottles could instead be used to develop Boston infrastructure or provide more insulation to homes that may not have it. There is so much we can do. However, with modern culture emphasizing luxury and comfort, getting everyone to use reusable straws and bottles is highly unlikely. That doesn't mean people shouldn’t try. Maybe limit your plastic use for a week, or just use a reusable straw on certain days.
So the next time you’re walking in the market aisle, you may want to consider where that plastic bottle will end up and get a reusable water bottle instead. Get a personalized one if you want, so you’ll be looking stylish and being eco-friendly!
And remember what Ms. Pocius said: “No action is too small!”