As the weather starts to heat up, many people worldwide are planning to or have already started heading to the lake or the beach to soak up the sun. And with the global temperature getting warmer every year, these trips to the water will become more frequent. While this is common practice in the summertime, this increase in activity can lead to water pollution, specifically beach pollution. But to what extent does plastic waste damage bodies of water? This article will explore the waste and pollution problem in large bodies of water. Plastic and garbage waste from beach attendees can contribute directly to plastic debris floating in the water, chemical contamination and microplastics. Beach pollution refers to substances that contaminate the coasts, including pesticides, litter, plastic, sewage and oil; however, this article will discuss humans’ impact on bodies of water when they visit beaches and lakes, such as litter, trash and plastic waste (Hu, 2020).
Impact on Humans and Animals
The impact of water pollution varies for humans and animals. For humans, in addition to waste in the water impacting the relaxing aesthetic of going to the water, with trash visible or even impacting swimming, plastic waste contributes to microplastics and toxic chemicals as well. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that enter our water streams, and scientists estimate that we consume 5 grams of microplastics a week (Francis, 2022). Thus far, microplastics have been found in beer, salt and other foods; we ingest them in our drinking water and seafood, and they have also been found in human blood and the placenta of unborn babies (Haghighi, 2020; Carrington, 2022). In the long run, microplastics are toxic to humans as they feed us the toxins found in plastic, including lead, mercury and cadmium (Andrews, 2012). When we digest some microplastics, we also often digest toxins like Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), phthalates, and Bisphenol A (BPA), which can harm the reproductive system, neurological system and endocrine system (International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2021). It has also been found that swimmers accidentally consuming bodies of water with waste, including bacteria, biological waste, trash and fertilizers, can end up with a variety of health problems, ranging from stomachaches to neurological disorders depending on the severity of the contamination and the frequency of the swimming (Hu, 2020).
For animals, the impact is different. They interact with plastic waste in two ways – interruption and ingestion. Interruption is when they interact with the garbage and get caught, injured, infected or lacerated by the plastic (International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2021). This is commonly seen with sea turtles, who get caught in six-pack rings and have to be cut free. Ingestion occurs when the animals mistake microplastic or normal plastic for food and die from starvation as their stomachs fill with no nutrients (International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2021). Debris can also transport invasive species to different ecosystems, which disrupts biodiversity and the food web (International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2021). Moreover, plastic waste on sand has started to impact the reproduction rate of sea turtles as the trash changes the temperature of the sand where they lay their eggs (Hu, 2020). Birds may also ingest cigarette butts and other waste left on beaches, disrupting their digestive systems.
How to be more mindful
When one goes to the beach or the lake this summer to cool off, they should be mindful of how they can minimize their contributions to beach and marine pollution. One should take note of the wasteful products they bring and ensure that they pick up all their garbage by bringing a container they can use as a trash can to ensure that food waste, soda cans, plastic six-pack-rings that hold sodas and any other trash eventually end up in proper trash cans. People should also refrain from bringing single-use items when they can, like plastic bags, plastic straws or plastic water bottles, and any trash they may accidentally forget on the beach or the wind can easily blow that away. Instead, they should opt for reusable, biodegradable or eco-friendly items that they would care about more if lost. For people with dogs, it is essential to properly dispose of biological waste in the garbage, as even a tiny amount of waste can contaminate the size of a tennis pool and has high levels of bacteria (Dalby, 2022). Outside of what people can do physically at the beach or lake, people should be more mindful of the plastic products they purchase. As mentioned earlier, different chemicals and toxins are found in some plastic products that can be very harmful to the body, like DEHP and BPA, which can do even more damage when they enter the water.
Andrews, G. (2012). Plastics in the ocean affecting human health. Case Studies. https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/health/case_studies/plastics.html
Carrington, D. (2022, March 24). Microplastics found in human blood for first time. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/24/microplastics-found-in-human-blood-for-first-time
Dalby, C. (2022, January 12). Dog owners don’t understand the damage a single poo can do to a bathing beach, researcher says. Dublin Inquirer. https://dublininquirer.com/2022/01/12/dog-owners-don-t-understand-the-damage-a-single-poo-can-do-to-a-bathing-beach-researcher-says/
Francis, A. (2022, October 5). How much microplastic am I eating? And is there any way to avoid it? Bon Appétit. https://www.bonappetit.com/story/microplastics-food
Haghighi, A. S. (2020, November 23). How does water pollution affect human health? Medicalnewstoday.com. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/water-pollution-and-human-health
Hu, S. (2020, May 28). Beach pollution 101. Nrdc.org. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/beach-pollution-101
International Union for Conservation of Nature. (2021, November). Marine plastic pollution. IUCN. https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-brief/marine-plastic-pollution