Plastics in the wild: ‘Eventually the plastic that enters the Owyhee [River] will enter the ocean’

In this undated photo, discarded trash, which may have been left in the Owyhee River to stay cooled off, pollute the waterway.

ONTARIO — As summer gets into full swing, there may be camping, fishing and floating trips, and while the focus is on having a good time, people should also consider what may be left behind.

While plastic has become a material of convenience with its many uses, a recent Oregon Field Guide program on Oregon Public Broadcasting focused on how plastics are showing up in the state’s waterways and in the ocean in many forms from larger objects to tiny strands, endangering wildlife and water quality — even getting into the food chain.

While the focus of the PBS program was mainly on waterways in western Oregon and the Pacific Ocean, the problem is prevalent in eastern Oregon, as well, specifically along the Owyhee River.

“Trash left along the Owyhee River below the dam is an ongoing problem,” wrote Larisa Bogardus, spokeswoman for the Vale District Bureau of Land Management, in an email.

“Although trash cans are provided at multiple locations [in the Owyhee Canyon] and emptied regularly, littering continues to be a problem, as does the use of trash cans for household garbage, rather than day use or camping trash,” she said.

Bogardus complimented volunteer groups such as the Indianhead Fly Fishers and Friends of the Owyhee, which conduct annual cleanups. Still though, she said, more of those are needed — especially during the peak recreation season.

“We ask all users of public lands to practice ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, which include disposing of waste properly and being considerate of other visitors,” wrote Sammy Castonguay, with Friends of the Owyhee, in an email.

His group has found an abundance of litter.

“It is fairly common to visit one of the ‘camp sites’ along the river after the tenants have left to find a garbage pit,” Castonguay said.

In a recent incident, the garbage was left in a pile but packaging was floating in the water, where the river was apparently used for refrigeration, as an unopened bottle of Powerade and some chip-dip were also found, he said.

The garbage left behind shows a disregard for the natural environment, as well as ourselves and other people.

One-use plastics can be easily blown about and can land some distance from the original source, becoming part of the landscape. While many people will pick up the trash, others will add their own litter to a site, which has already been defiled, Castonguay said.

He added that seeing trash left behind can ruin another person’s outdoor experience.

“When a pile is found, it is hard not to be upset at the folks that left it,” Castonguay wrote.

Aside from those impacts, there is the environment.

“Garbage is full of potential environmental pollutants and plastics can play a part,” Castonguay, the Earth System Science instructor at Treasure Valley Community College, said. “Plastics may degrade, but they do not decompose.”

“But there are very, very few organisms on the planet that contain the enzymes to break down simple plastics — let alone complex ones,” he said.

It if were just a matter of carbon and hydrogen materials, that would be one thing, but to give plastics color and other properties, such as flexibility and rigidity, other atoms and molecules are added. These cannot be decomposed by naturally occurring enzymes, Castonguay said.

As plastic degrades in the environment, it does not go away. Instead, it gets smaller and smaller, and since those microplastics are not digestible, he said, they can cause problems for the organisms that ingest them.

“While it would be very difficult to calculate the time, mostly because of the dams and reservoirs, eventually the plastic that enters the Owyhee will enter the ocean,” he said, “mostly in microscopic strands suspended in the water.”

He added that ocean plankton also eat it, and it works its way up the food chain.

“Yes, I commonly find plastics in around the Owyhee River, particularly on the canyon section, some at the end of Leslie Gulch.”

Castonguay cited the following impacts:

“Low impact if stranded in the land, and highly recoverable.

“Moderate impact on our local waterways, and slightly higher impact as it eventually gets in the ocean.

“High impact on our psyche.”

Craig Geddes, Malheur County Environmental Health Director, said that too many plastics are not a problem at the county-owned landfill on Lytle Boulevard, however drip tape from irrigation systems is not accepted.

“There is too much of it,” he said.

As for other plastics, Geddes said, they are “better in the landfill.”


Larry Meyer is a reporter for the Argus Observer.

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