From Roadways to Rivers

A recent study conducted by German Scientist, Dr. Andreas Fath and his research team found that the Tennessee River holds one of the highest levels of microplastics ever measured. The researchers were so shocked at the results, they double and triple checked the findings of their study!

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long – the width of 5 stacked pennies. Plastic can be made this small to be added to products like face wash, toothpaste, and some cleaning materials. OR bigger pieces of plastic like grocery bags can break down into lots of smaller plastic pieces. The terrible thing about plastic is that no matter how much it breaks down from its original form, it never really leaves.

The microplastics found in the river were primarily made of Polyethylene – what we use to make plastic grocery bags - and Polypropylene – what we use to construct single-use plastic packaging. 

How are microplastics actually getting into the river?

The research team scanned the river as a whole and was unable to find ‘microplastic-hotspots’. This means that the microplastics aren’t coming from any one place. Instead, it’s likely a result of general plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is also a culprit in the ocean’s microplastic problem. According to the National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration, inland sources are heavily contributing to the trash we see ending up in our oceans. 70% of the trash we find floating in our waterways has come from our streets or through our storm drains.

Here are the top ten items the Ocean Conservancy has found in our waterways:

Top Ten Items - River.jpg

Even if our plastic is actually making it into the landfill, it can still end up in our water! Plastic has the ability to break down and leave the landfill with the help of various microorganisms and ultraviolet light.

If we leave our plastic consumption and microplastic issues unchecked, scientists are predicting that we’ll have more microplastic in our oceans than actual fish by 2050!

So – What can we do?

Plastic to Recycling - River.png


As a nation, we don’t always have the best track record at maintaining good recycling habits. The United States alone uses 14 billion plastic shopping bags each year and we only recycle 9% of our total plastic trash!

The first step is to reduce consumption. Reusable shopping bags always provide a more economic and eco-friendly choice. An easy way to make sure your reusable bags go to the store with you is to always leave them in your car! Shopping local when possible helps us cut down on potential shipping waste (and costs!!). Recycling provides us with a great second alternative for the products and materials we just haven’t found a suitable substitute for.

When using plastic shopping bags is a must, it is useful to remember that grocery stores often provide recycling bins so that customers are able to return their clean plastic bags. These plastic bags are recycled in three major ways:
1. The plastic bags are mixed with wood scraps like saw dust to make composite lumber – a durable construction material.
2. Our plastic bags can be melted down to make an entirely new batch of plastic bags. This process is much more efficient and a whole lot more gentle on our environment.
3. Plastic bags can be used to make carbon nanotube membranes, which are used for energy storage and biomedical innovation in nanotechnology.

Handling our own plastic waste isn’t the end! Cleaning up our neighborhoods is a massive contributor in our shared efforts to reduce waste and eradicate litter.  

Here at Keep Knoxville Beautiful, we are dedicated to creating a cleaner, greener, and more beautiful community. We plan major Keep Knoxville Beautiful litter clean ups in parks, by roadways, and in our waterways. You can click here to become a volunteer. You can check our regularly updated events page here to view volunteer opportunities. We also support smaller groups who want to organize their own clean ups by providing information, free supplies, and--if preferred--putting out a call for additional volunteers. On average, every year we support over 2,000 volunteers who remove over 50,000 pounds of litter from our roads and waterways. You can click here to start organizing a clean-up.

By keeping our roads clean, we can keep our river clean.