The scale and consequences of plastic pollution

By: Eric Sparks / Published: Dec 08,  2016


On the heels of the tons of trash collected at this year’s coastal cleanup events, I would like to discuss plastic pollution. This type of pollution is something that we are all too familiar with. It is hard to find a roadway or waterway that doesn’t have an abundance of discarded cups, bags, straws, cigarette butts, etc., in plain sight. While plastics only account for about 10 percent of our discarded waste, over 80 percent of the waste accumulated in the environment is plastic.

An  interesting figure I have run across showed that by 2050 plastic production is expected to quadruple and use about 20 percent of global oil consumption (major component of plastics). To me, the most shocking and worrisome statistic from the figure is that by year 2050, projections show there will be more plastic weight than fish weight in the ocean!

Plastics degrade very slowly (10s to 100s of years), which makes it an ideal material for items that must last a long time. Because of plastics long life-span and poor disposal practices, plastics are accumulating in the environment faster than they degrade.

Since plastics do not decompose easily, they can cause tremendous harm if ingested by wildlife. Mortality of marine animals, including many commercially and recreationally important species, has been linked to toxicity, starvation, and blockages caused by plastic.

What can you do to reduce the amount of plastics entering our ecosystems? The common motto is to think of the 3 or 4 R’s (I prefer 4). Those 4 R’s are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

Mississippi Coastal Cleanup volunteers and their trash at Graveline Bayou (Photo by Janet Wright).
Mississippi Coastal Cleanup volunteers and their trash at Graveline Bayou (Photo by Janet Wright).

If you never use straws, a simple action you can take to reduce plastic pollution is alerting the waiter at your favorite restaurant that you’re not going to use the straw, so please don’t bring one. Did you that we throw away enough straws per day in the United States to fill 127 school busses and that many of those are never used? To complete the other R’s, actions would be to use reusable grocery bags and recycle everything that you can.

The impacts of plastics on the coastal environment is relatively new field of research, but has really gained some momentum. Over the next couple years, we should have a much better understanding of the impact of plastic pollution on our natural environment.

Currently, there are a couple ways you can contribute to this research. The first is a survey to gauge the public's perception of the environment, plastic pollution, and their willingness to pay for environmentally friendly alternatives in restaurants. We need your help distributing this survey far and wide. Feel free to take the survey yourself too! The survey can be found at

The second project is funded by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance and starts early next year. This project focuses on determining the distribution of microplastics (small pieces smaller than 5mm) across the Gulf of Mexico shorelines. The project team is looking for citizen scientists to help collect sand and water samples. Volunteers will be provided with all of the gear they will need for sampling. Let me know if you or your group are interesting in participating.

Any questions, contact me, Eric Sparks, an assistant professor with the MSU Extension Service and coastal ecology specialist with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, at or 228-546-1025.


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