How do we stop plastic pollution in our water?

A plastic bottle lies among other debris washed ashore on the beach.
A plastic bottle lies among other debris washed ashore on the beach in Sri Lanka.
Gemunu Amarasinghe | AP file

Plastic pollution is everywhere. It's in our oceans, lakes and tap water.

A new study even found that most bottled drinking water has been contaminated with microplastics, less than 5 mm in diameter.

Then there are massive gyres of plastic floating in the ocean, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Bottom line: Plastic pollution is massive and widespread, it's bad for the planet, and we have a massive problem to solve.

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How do we begin to conceptualize where to begin?

Think of it like this, says Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia:

You walk into your kitchen and the water's on. Something has clogged the sink, and the floor is getting drenched.

What's the first thing you're going to do?

You turn off the water. Then you can start to clean up the mess effectively.

We need to start thinking of combating plastic pollution in a similar way, Mason says.

"We can't clean up something that is an ongoing and exponentially increasing problem," Mason said. "Mother Earth will clean herself, if we give her time."

The problem with plastics is that once they're manufactured, they mostly wind up back in the earth. Recycling is becoming less profitable, illegal dumping is becoming more common, and some countries to which the U.S. used to ship its plastic don't want that waste anymore.

Once they're polluted or in landfills, the plastics don't biodegrade like some other materials. They photodegrade, meaning they break down into smaller parts — aka the microplastics that are ubiquitous water pollutants.

You could start by cutting out single-use plastics, like swapping in reusable bags for the plastic produce bags or using a reusable water bottle instead of a disposable one.

While it'll take large-scale change to remedy this problem, such actions start with individuals.

Hear MPR News host Marianne Combs talk with Mason and Emily DiFrisco of the Plastic Pollution Coalition talk plastics by using the player above. They take listener questions, too.