The Plastic Watershed

A NWNL NextGen Blog by Jacqueline Jobin, University of Minnesota.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Jacqueline Jobin is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota studying Environmental Science, Policy, and Management with a minor in Corporate Environmental Management.

Plastic has become the world’s most accessible material. From bags to take-out containers, it is one of the most used materials in western society. However, consuming this versatile and moldable product has major consequences on the environment. When plastic pollution is mentioned it is easy to picture plastic bags or straws floating in the ocean and hurting wildlife. But in recent years it has become clear that plastic is prominent in almost all of our water including critical watersheds. Like other major watersheds, plastic particles have seeped into the Mississippi River Basin – wreaking havoc on its ecological community and becoming a major source of the ocean’s plastic pollution.

Plastic washed up on beach. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The Mississippi River Basin is not only the largest drainage basin in North America, but a vital economic resource for the United States.[mfn]Severin, Giles[/mfn] For centuries, its waters have carried precious cargo to growing riverside towns by providing an efficient and cheap shipping method. The watershed provides water to fifty U.S. cities amounting to almost twenty million people and has twelve tributaries including the St. Croix, Wisconsin, Rock, Illinois, Ohio, Kaskaskia, Minnesota, Des Moines, Missouri, White, Arkansas and Red Rivers.[mfn]Nelson, Cody[/mfn] The Mississippi River Basin is an enormous network of waterways connecting rivers and streams that snake their way from Minnesota’s Lake Itasca through ten states until they reach their final destination, the Gulf of Mexico.[mfn]No Water No Life[/mfn]

Lake Itasca – Headwaters of the Mississippi River

Unfortunately, this enormously connected North American resource has become plagued with plastic. Living Lands and Waters facilitator, Michael Coyne-Logan has spent years removing wastes from the watershed and stated, “Plastic is the number one thing we find, and most of it is coming in the form of plastics used once and then tossed, like water bottles.” These tossed plastic bottles have detrimental effects on water systems and all organisms that interact with it. When plastics are exposed to elements like wind and sun they break down into smaller and smaller particles until eventually, they are small enough to be called microplastics. These small particles of plastic are highly toxic since they tend to absorb dangerous chemicals and can be mistaken by animals we consume for food, working their way up the food chain and onto our plates.[mfn]Boyd, Robynne[/mfn]

Today, microplastics are flowing through all connected rivers and estuaries, being carried to the ocean and joining the 95% of ocean plastics that came from the land.[mfn]Boyd, Robynne[/mfn] It is estimated that between 4.8 and 12.7 metric tons of plastics from land are put into water sources every year, contributing to the 9 million tons of plastics already polluting our oceans. The Mississippi River Basin is no exception. The Mississippi River contributes to 40% of plastic pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. Studies show, within the watershed there are 18 plastic particles per cubic meter, almost as high as that of the Great Garbage Patch (a gyre in the central Pacific Ocean).[mfn]Boyd, Robynne[/mfn] The amount of plastic found within the Mississippi River Basin shines added light on the issues surrounding single-use plastics and the widespread effects it can have on the environment and all water bodies.

The Pacific Garbage Patch, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The task of ensuring no more plastic enters the Mississippi River Watershed is daunting, but local leaders are taking action. With the help of lawmakers and private companies, several mayors of cities along the Mississippi River have vowed to cut the amount of plastic waste entering the water body by 20%. Representative Rick Hansen of St. Paul is working with these mayors and described the plan to cut the waste as utilizing recycling, better waste management and awareness initiatives throughout the cities along the water basin.[mfn]Nelson, Cody[/mfn]

Progress cannot rely solely on city officials. Our collective actions affect our watersheds and the water bodies connected to them. Our actions upstream and downstream have major effects on ecological communities of the ocean. With a decrease in plastic usage and littering and an increase in awareness, we can all take action and help the recovery of the Mississippi River Basin.

New Orleans, Lower Mississippi River Basin


Boyd, Robynne. The Gulf of Mexico is Sending out an S.O.S- a Message in a Plastic Bottle. NRDC, June 4, 2018. Accessed May 28, 2020, by JJ.

Conkle, Jeremy. Microplastics in the Mississippi River. Texas A&M University Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences. Accessed May 30, 2020, by JJ.

“Mississippi River Basin.” No Water No Life. Accessed May 28, 2020, by JJ.

Nelson, Cody. Mississippi River leaders want to cut their plastic waste 20 percent by 2020. MPR News, September 19, 2018. Accessed May 30, 2020, by JJ.

Severin, Giles. Muller, Robert. Kesel, Richard. Schaetzl, Randall. “Modern Commercial Activity.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 27, 2020, by JJ.

2 thoughts on “The Plastic Watershed

  1. Serendipitously, the response to this could be as effective as we have been as we try to stop the spread of Covid-19 by small but significant steps – masks, personal distance. But it’s only effective if everyone cooperates. But how about the manufacturers of these plastic bottles? It seems an enormous task!

  2. Ending the problem of plastic in our watersheds is a daunting task especially with how much plastic our society consumes. Collective actions have proven to be effective in previous environmental movements and with enough support, we as consumers can send a message to plastic manufacturers that we will no longer buy plastic products because they harm our environment. These collective actions have the power to force manufacturers to transition to the production of other, hopefully, more sustainable products!

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