Reducing plastic pollution is the theme of this year’s Earth Day on April 22

courtesy of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency • The scale of microplastics as seen on a fingertip.

As if we didn’t have enough environmental concerns to worry about, we can add plastics in our drinking water to the list. 

Previous research focused on plastics in bodies of water such as the Mississippi River, lakes and oceans. Researchers report that in addition to littering our beaches and landscapes, plastics are killing coral reefs, poisoning and injuring marine life, clogging waste streams and landfills and now they’re turning up in the water we drink.

Why are plastics such a problem? They don’t biodegrade, but photodegrade, meaning they break down into smaller parts called microplastics.

Last month it was reported that what’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, floating between California and Hawaii, is up to 16 times larger than previously thought, carrying some 79,000 metric tons of plastic, and still growing at an exponential pace.  Dutch oceanographer Laurent Lebreton and his colleagues surveyed the debris and found plastics ranging in size from microplastic — 0.05 to five centimeters in size — to megaplastic — larger than 50 centimeters. Plastics of all sizes harm ocean life.

Minnesotans are optimistic, with 85 percent saying they think the state is on the right track when it comes to providing safe drinking water, according to an MPR News Ground Level survey conducted in August and September last year.

However, results of drinking water samples from Mary Kosuth’s home in south Minneapolis, a drinking fountain at her workplace and a drinking fountain in her child’s school all contained microplastics, she said.  

Kosuth, then a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, tested drinking water from cities and towns on five continents, and research results were released last September. The study, based at the State University of New York, found plastics in 72 to 94 percent of the 159 drinking water samples from around the world. That included 94 percent of the 33 tap water samples from the United States.  

Researchers think the synthetic fibers are released from many sources, including laundry vents, polar fleeces, carpet, toothpastes and soaps, such as facial cleansers. 

Austin Baldwin and a team with the U.S. Geological Survey studied the St. Croix, Namekagon and Mississippi rivers in 2015 and found surprisingly high levels of microplastics in all of the samples they examined of water, sediment, fish and mussels.

Researchers would like to do more testing to determine if contaminants on the plastics get passed into fish and what danger, if any, results from microplastics in fish and humans.


Earth Day

Earth Day is Sunday, April 22. Started in 1970 by U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson as an environmental teach-in, Earth Day annually celebrates the natural beauty of our planet, reminding us of what we can do to keep it healthy and offering opportunities around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection.  

This year’s Earth Day sponsors are aiming high, to focus on fundamentally changing human attitudes and behaviors around plastics and catalyzing a significant reduction in plastic pollution. As Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” wrote, “Conservation is a cause that has no end. There is no point at which we will say our work is finished.”  

What can we do?  

There are numerous ways for us to act to reduce microplastic pollution. Try a few of these:

• Cut back on consuming single-use plastic products such as shopping bags, coffeeshop cups and utensils.  Bring a reusable produce bag to the grocery store.

• Skip bottled water.

• Bring your own mug, thermos and utensils.

• Stop using plastic straws, even in restaurants.

• Choose paper and cardboard instead of plastic bottles and bags.

• Avoid buying items packaged in plastic.

• Recycle plastic.

• Purchase food, such as cereal, pasta and rice from bulk bins.

• Buy facial scrubs, toothpaste and other personal care products made with natural exfoliants.

• Switch from disposable diapers to cloth.

• Wear clothing made from natural materials rather than synthetics such as fleece. Invest in high-quality items so you can replace them less often.

• Wash your synthetic clothes less often.

• Invest in a mesh laundry bag that captures some shedding fibers during the wash cycle, such as Patagonia’s Guppyfriend.


Listed below are a few of the many local family activities in which you can participate to celebrate Earth Day on April 22. See for additional information about these and other fun learning activities.  

• Annual celebration at the Harriet Alexander Nature Center in Roseville, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Enjoy free entertainment, beat a drum in the parade and help with planting. Top off the day with a slice of cake to celebrate the nature center’s birthday.

• Party for the Planet at the Como Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be tons of free activities throughout the weekend, focusing on creative ways to conserve energy.

• Birding Festival at Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., $5 per person or $15 with lunch. Celebrate the many birds of Minnesota.

• Park clean-ups at Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Township, Fort Snelling State Park in St. Paul, Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul, Maplewood parks, Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes and many others.


— Gwen Willems is an elected Supervisor with the Ramsey Conservation District. The Board of Supervisors sets district policies and oversees the budget, staffing and conservation activities. She also co-chairs the Capitol Region Watershed District’s Citizen Advisory Committee and lives in Falcon Heights.

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