Walking the silted-in trail where school children used to trot along on field trips to the Wildlife Study Area at Oxley Nature Center is a surreal experience after the flood at Bird Creek.
The trail isn’t much of a nature trail anymore; debris and plastic wrapped around every vertical surface trumps the vision of all things natural.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it,” said Eddie Reese, director of the center, as he pointed out a decades-old Rainbo Bread wrapper.
“Remember the old bakery at 11th and Sheridan?” he said. “It always smelled so good.”
It was one sweet memory among a pile of trash washed up from an old landfill uncovered by recent flooding just upstream from the trail. The plastics don’t represent an immediate environmental danger but a long-term issue — and a sign of things to come, experts said.
That old wrapper from a bakery long since closed comes with an opportunity, Reese said.
“It’s sad but it’s a really great opportunity to talk about plastics and packaging and that we need to put more into switching from plastics to biodegradable materials or to recyclable plastics,” he said. “Just look at this. Fifty years and nothing about it has changed, it just erodes into smaller and smaller pieces.”
All around him was plastic tangled in vines, plastic wrapped around trees, bits and pieces and parts underfoot, mixed with the silt, all of it forever a part of the landscape.
“If we all do a little bit, it can make a big difference in the long run,” he said.
“I’m hoping maybe something good can come of this,” he said. “Maybe we can get some good momentum toward encouraging people to do the right thing about plastic packaging, at least thinking about it, all that plastic that goes into the landfill.”
The naturalist and park director said local wildlife should be mostly adept at avoiding the plastic and that it shouldn’t pose a great risk in the short term. The only worrisome items among the plastics are old plastic six-pack drink can collars that are notorious for snaring wildlife, he said.
“Plastic is pretty inert,” said Patrick Riley, environmental programs manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. “It’s not something we are really that concerned about as far as it being an immediate threat to health and the environment, it’s not alarming.”
“But the point is the stuff we throw away, we want it to stay that way,” he said. “When we get rid of it and it goes to a landfill, we want it to stay there, we don’t want it out in the environment.”
International headlines often are generated by scientific study focused on plastics that make it into the oceans and break down into microplastic contamination, labeled a pressing environmental concern and linked by scientists to a number of problems with sea life.
Coastal sources of the contamination are well studied, but inland sources are not well known, according to a search of recent scientific literature through the National Academy of Sciences.
A March 2018 study noted in the journal Nature recorded “pervasive” microplastic contamination in 40 river channels across England, amounts of which declined by up to 70% after a large flood.
Researchers from the University of Georgia and University of California, Santa Barbara took stock of all plastics in a 2017 article in Science Advance notes that about 9% of plastic waste had been recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.
“If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly (13,227 tons) of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050,” the authors stated.
“We have historically located dump sites, landfills, on cheap land. Places no one wanted, and it was usually land close to lakes and rivers prone to flooding,” Riley said. “There are different rules and regulations that apply to the design, operation and construction of landfills today that ensure the materials that are placed in it stay there.”
“This is an opportunity to remind people of what we strongly advocate — reduce, reuse, recycle,” said DEQ spokeswoman Erin Hatfield.
Riley said it is hard to say what will be the fixes for the Oxley site until it is inspected, which is expected to take place Friday.
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