What’s in the water? Earth Day theme underscores hidden dangers of plastics

By Sarah Powell April 14, 2022

Look around you, what do you see? How many things are composed of plastic? I’m staring at a computer screen and typing on a keyboard — both are made of plastic. The phone at my desk? Plastic. I’m drinking water out of a plastic straw and a plastic cup. My mouse and mouse pad are variations of plastic. My clothing contains polyester and nylon, which are synthesis thermoplastic polymers. Did you see it hidden in that last term? Plastics.

The American Chemical Society credits the Age of Polymers and Plastics to Leo Baekeland and his invention of any early plastic called Bakelite in 1907. This led to great advancements in everyday items, from toys to electronics, and even medical devices. Plastics have truly changed our lives.

But there’s a downside …

But what happens to plastics when you throw them away? Since most plastics are buoyant, they often end up in the ocean and other waterways. At University of Arkansas Grantham, online degree students who have taken Introduction to Environmental Science can tell you what they learned about the impact of plastic bags. But for now, let’s take a look at some scientific research directly from the sources.

According to Andrés Cózar and his team of researchers, there are between 7,000 to 45,000 tons of plastic floating on the open-ocean surface. Most of the plastics have been broken down by the sun. Cózar’s team found the size of these plastics to be less than two millimeters in length, and usually not visible to us. As the plastics break down, they release toxic chemicals. Because of their small size, they enter the food chain and “bioaccumulate,” or build up in the tissues of organisms.

There is evidence of this in fish feces, as well as in the guts of dead shorebirds. Considering humans are part of the food chain, we require water, and we are the reason these plastics end up in our waterways … this is an issue that directly applies to all of us. It also underscores our need to take responsibility for the pollution we cause.

What can we do?

It’s simple: reduce our use of plastics. Dr. Sherri Mason, a leading researcher in plastic pollution, suggests several things we can all do to reduce our consumer use of plastic:

  • Refuse disposable plastic
  • Choose less packaging
  • Don’t buy products with microbeads
  • Avoid straws
  • Choose to reuse
  • Be a conscience consumer

Another way to help is by participating in a litter clean up near you to prevent more plastic from ending up in various water ways.


American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. Bakelite: The world’s first synthetic plastic. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/bakelite.html

Cózar, A. et al. (2014) Plastic debris in the open ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (28) 10239-10244; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1314705111 http://www.pnas.org/content/111/28/10239

Mason, Sherri. (2016, July 6). Beads of destruction. TEDx Thunder Bay. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0NikCMZCFE

About the Author

Sarah Powell
Sarah received her bachelor's degree in biology and a Master of Natural Science Education from Southeast Missouri State University. She teaches several science courses at University of Arkansas Grantham, as well as the Student Success course. Sarah also serves as a population education curriculum facilitator, helping teachers implement aspects of the human impact on the environment in their classrooms. She volunteers with Friends of Kaw and Bridging the Gap KC to assist with citizen science projects and habitat restoration work in her community, and is passionate about helping students understand science and their place in the environment.
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