Trash Destroys

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve decided to republish an old blog post about trash and wildlife, with a few changes here and there, of course. I do it for several reasons. I’ve been at this blogging endeavor for almost a year now—so, why not try something new? I also find myself thinking about the upcoming Earth Day and especially about the 2019 World Migratory Bird Day celebration with this year’s theme: protecting migrating birds from the scourge of plastic pollution. (Let me add here that despite the media’s persistent focus, plastic drinking straws are an infinitesimally small part of the problem.) And I do it for another reason. Most of that old blog post, and much of what you’re about to read, was just published in what I think is a premier magazine for birders: BirdWatchingIt was published there under the title: “Help Birds by Cleaning Up Trash, Especially Plastic.”

Trash Destroys

In July 2018, I began my bird blog, “The World in Miniature,” with these words: “I came across this scene the other day. I won’t divulge my reaction to it! Outdoors men and women often search for vistas. Landscape photographers often do the same. But few, except perhaps the occasional nature blogger, seek out anything like this.” Here’s what I observed: our trash-filled world in miniature.

Jumbled mess of a trash pile
Jumbled mess of a trash pile

The Curve

This is a place that locals refer to as “the curve,” where Bainbridge Boulevard in Chesapeake, Virginia, takes a sharp bend. The dirt pull-off there is large enough for multiple parked cars. “The curve” is popular with crabbers, fishermen, and boaters, as Mains Creek, which flows into the Elizabeth River, is just a short slope away. But this place, like so many others, often fills up with trash. And trash is deleterious, especially to wildlife.

I continued posting: “This jumbled mess of a trash pile was just feet from an Elizabeth River tributary. And that’ll be its destination following a rainstorm, a higher-than-usual tide, or some other event. Heck, all this trash could eventually reach the bay or the ocean. And some, or some parts, may reach the digestive systems of unsuspecting animals, or humans.” Those words were followed by more foreboding words: “Animals belong here. People belong here. Most everything belongs here. But trash does not. Trash is an eyesore. Trash pollutes. Trash destroys habitat. And trash kills.”

Trash Alters Habitat

Trash is an eyesore. This is one reason why so many organizations devote resources to removing it. For example, the Friends of the Indian River, a Chesapeake-area nonprofit, sponsors quarterly cleanup days in and around the river. I interviewed Rogard Ross, the Friends’ founder, who told me that cleanups are important because pollution affects quality of life. Who wants to see trash everywhere? But he also explained that they’re important because trash alters habitat and drives away wildlife, especially ecologically important “birds and bees.”

Here’s an example of trash (in this case a heavy equipment tire and some aggregate concrete) altering habitat.

Heavy equipment tire and aggregate concrete in the river
Refuse in otherwise pristine habitat

 Now, here’s a more extreme example.

Tires dumped in the Great Dismal Swamp NWR
Tires dumped in the Great Dismal Swamp NWR in Suffolk, VA

These tires were dumped in a Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge ditch. My wife and I spent an entire day hauling them out and carting them off to a dumpster. Physical habitat changes like these are disturbing, of course. But even more disturbing are structural changes brought about by the toxins in carelessly disposed waste. These toxins contaminate soil and groundwater, and they impact plants and animals as well.

Plastic Trash is Harmful

Ross went on in our interview to zero in on the trash component: plastic. He expressed concern that plastic trash “gets into the food chain” and harms animals. He and his team do find tires, plywood, pieces of dock, strollers, and toys, some of which are in this recent cleanup junk pile. (Abandoned tires have become part of the landscape, haven’t they?)

Pile of trash that was pulled out of the Indian River
Indian River cleanup junk pile

But by far, volume-wise, they find more styrofoam (actually, polystyrene foam), plastic bottle caps, cigarette butts and filter tips, ketchup packets, food wrappers, straws, and other single-use plastic items.

Other organizations, like the Elizabeth River Project, another local conservation nonprofit, or much larger organizations like the Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Protection Agency, see the same trash assortment. Kat Fish, Elizabeth River Project Volunteer Coordinator, reports that volunteers find a disproportionate amount of plastic during their cleanups, everything from food wrappers and fishing line to water bottles and take-out containers.

assorted (mostly) plastic trash
Assorted (mostly) plastic trash

Plastic trash is a particularly menacing problem, especially when it reaches our rivers and oceans, as so much of it does. I stated as much in the blog excerpt above.

Microplastics

Some plastic is inherently toxic. But some plastic becomes toxic when lethal chemicals like PCBs and DDT attach to it.  Over time, this plastic waste breaks down into tinier pieces, known as “microplastics.” Here’s a plastic sheet degrading near the shore of the Elizabeth.

Plastic sheet breaking down in the Elizabeth River
Plastic sheet breaking down in the Elizabeth River

These plastic pieces, found up and down the water column, are then ingested by organisms like plankton and fish. And fish are eaten by birds and other animals higher up the food chain. Once ingested by birds, and this may be true of other species as well, the particles can damage organs, increase susceptibility to illness, or interfere with reproductive health. Per the EPA, almost half of the seabird population is affected (see “Biological Impacts”).

Animals Facing the Challenges

Toward the end of our interview, Ross and I agreed that it’s not all doom and gloom, though. Yes, there are challenges, and there’s a lot more work to be done. But individuals and organizations like the Friends, the Elizabeth River Project, the Ocean Conservancy and the EPA, are facing the challenges head-on. Wildlife is facing the challenges, too. This adult Yellow-crowned Night Heron (on yet another tire) is a shining example.

Adult Yellow-crowned Night Heron on a tire
Adult Yellow-crowned Night Heron on a tire–and facing the challenges head-on

And here are other shining examples as well!

Photoshopped version of the "jumbled mess of a trash pile," complete with animals
Our fanciful rendering of that “jumbled mess of a trash pile”

And This Just In

I wrote above about animals ingesting plastic. But ingesting is only part of the problem. Plastic can also suffocate and entangle. Here are 2 photos of a male Osprey delivering potentially dangerous nesting material to a construction crane nest in Chesapeake: a white, plastic bag, which could suffocate a nestling, and a piece of plastic twine, which could entangle the same. Incidentally, there are more of these kinds of nests around than I’d realized. So keep a sharp eye on construction cranes. Keep a sharp eye, too, on those communication towers.

Osprey delivering a plastic bag to its nest
Osprey delivering a plastic bag to its nest

 

Osprey delivering twine to its nest
Osprey delivering twine to its nest

While we’re on the subject of entanglement, what follows is a heart-wrenching photo I took in San Diego, in early January, of a Pied-billed Grebe that was virtually wrapped up in plastic. The bird was able to swim, and the bird was able to dive. But what I wasn’t sure about was this: Was the bird able to fly? And more importantly—would the bird survive?

Pied-billed Grebe entangled in plastic netting
Pied-billed Grebe entangled in plastic netting

Quip, Question, Quote

“Nature in the city is nature at its most tenacious.” Richard Louv in Lost Child in the Woods

2 thoughts on “Trash Destroys

  1. Thanks for posting this– may it be seen far and wide. Sadly, very good photos of our commonly seen wildlife caught in plastic trash.

    Driving north along coastal highways this spring, a CONTINUOUS stream of plastic trash from Florida to New Jersey, blown in trees and bushes, stuck in farm and field meets the eye: mostly plastic bags, other plastic garbage, and tires in a national wildlife refuge (Cape Hatteras).

    This was not true a generation ago! Suggest teaching little kids about respect for wildlife, re-usable bags– and the deadly dangers of plastic trash– and what they can do to stop it.

    Like

    1. Mary, Thanks so much. Comments like yours mean a lot to me. Yes, it is amazing how much plastic waste there is out there. And most of it eventually winds up in our waterways. But no matter where it winds up, it’s hazardous to wildlife, or at the very least, it’s really unsightly, as you’ve implied.

      Like

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