You Can Help Study Microplastics Pollution

October 05 2015

This is a guest post written by our friend Gregg Treinish, founder of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a non-profit organization that mobilizes the outdoor community to gather and share scientific data that drives conservation around the world. The photo above was taken by Henry Worobec/Bridger Brigade.

On a sunny weekend in September, nearly 60 volunteers gathered on the banks of the Gallatin River in Montana to learn about an emerging pollutant that threatens their local river, as well as all the world’s waterways: microplastics. And they were there to do something about it.

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) brought them together for the first in a series of water sampling missions targeted at better understanding the distribution and type of this pollution in the Gallatin watershed. Ultimately, we plan to use this information to reduce the amount of microplastics pollution entering the watershed. (You can learn more here.)

Draining from Yellowstone National Park, the Gallatin is the headwaters of the largest river system in the lower 48, the Missouri-Mississippi. So the data our volunteers gather will truly make a difference locally while also affecting global ecosystem health.

What are Microplastics? Classified as plastic particles smaller than 5mm in size, microplastics have been found in abundance in marine waters. Since early 2013, ASC ocean adventurers have gathered samples from the world’s most remote oceans (check out our sampling map here), and our scientist has found microplastic pollution in roughly 95% of them.

Very little is known about microplastics in freshwater, which is why we expanded our research to study rivers, lakes and streams this spring. We want to find the sources of the pollution, and turn off that faucet.

Why Microplastics Matter. The tiny plastics attract toxins including DDT and BPA, which then enter the food chain when the particles are ingested by aquatic life. The toxins magnify as they move from smaller plankton and filter feeders up to larger fish and animals.

How Do They Enter the Water? Maybe you’ve heard of microbeads—the plastic particles manufactured as scrubbing agents for many cosmetics, toothpastes and household cleaners. With several state bans on products containing them, most recently in California, they have been in the news. This is good progress; however, other sources of microplastics are more prolific.

As you might suspect, much of this pollution comes from the weathering of larger plastic debris like bags and bottles. It breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, but it never disappears, instead becoming an aquatic plastic fog. Perhaps the most surprising source is clothing. Every time you wash your clothes, hundreds or even thousands of plastic fibers shed from the synthetic pieces. They’re so small they wash right through the washing machine filters, through water treatment, and directly into the outflow. A fleece jacket can shed up to 1,900 microfibers per wash, according to a study by leading microplastics researcher Mark Browne.

Together We Can Make Change. This is a problem on the scale of climate change—and yet at this point, we know very little about it. Now is the time to act.

I founded ASC in 2011 with a dream of putting to work skilled outdoorsmen and women gathering data for conservation, and we’ve done just that, retrieving hard-to-obtain data from some of the most remote places on the planet for projects involving both wildlife and habitat health. Our work in microplastics has strengthened my convictions that together we truly can change the face of conservation. Already, we have more than 1,000 samples from geographically diverse locations. Soon, we will be able to use this information to leverage change. Join us. 

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is a nonprofit organization that mobilizes the outdoor community to gather and share scientific data, driving conservation worldwide. Gregg Treinish is ASC’s founder and executive director.