Plastic is not only all around us, it now proliferates in perhaps our most important natural resource: fresh water.

The Canadian government this summer announced its intention to ban the use of the tiny plastic microbeads manufactured for many personal care products, according to a recent piece in The Economist magazine. The move would follow on the heels of similar legislation by the Netherlands and eight U.S. states.

MW-sampling-bozeman-creekMerrill Warren gathers water from Bozeman Creek during the Gallatin Microplastics Initiative preliminary sampling. Photo by Emily Stifler WolfeCountless microbeads enter the waterways every year, so small they wash down the drain and right through water treatment filtration.

“New York alone flushes about 19 tonnes of microbeads down its drains every year,” according to The Economist story.

The U.S. Congress Subcommittee on Health is currently reviewing a national microbead ban, the Microbead Free Waters Act.

But microbeads are not the only source of microplastic pollution. Classified as plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters in size—or the size of the raised numbers on a credit card—microplastics also enter aquatic environments when larger plastic debris like bottles and bags weather and break down, and in the form of tiny plastic fibers that shed every time you wash your synthetic clothing.

In fact, a fleece jacket can shed up to 1,900 plastic microfibers when washed, according to a 2011 study by ecologist and leading microplastics researcher Mark Browne.

Microplastics are small, yes. Harmless, not so much: Although many of their long-term environmental effects are unknown, studies have shown that the particles attract toxins like DDT and BPA that enter the food chain when ingested by aquatic life.

And they’re here, in our home waters.

Gallatin-River-from-AboveThe Gallatin River between Bozeman and Big Sky, as seen from the top of the Gallatin Tower. Photo by Emily Stifler WolfeThe Bozeman-based non-profit where I work, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, conducted a pilot study this spring, sampling five sites in the Gallatin Watershed. We found significant microplastic pollution in every sample.

Now, we aim to do something about it. And we hope that readers here will join in.

This September, ASC will launch a focused study sampling 50-plus sites in the main Gallatin and its tributaries four times each over the course of a year.

“This project is an opportunity for Bozeman area paddlers, hikers, trail runners and other outdoor enthusiasts to help protect the Gallatin River, which is the headwaters of the largest river system in the lower 48, said ASC Executive Director Gregg Treinish, who founded ASC in 2011.

ASC has been studying microplastic pollution in the marine environment since early 2013, and has found the tiny plastic particles in nearly every liter of water we have analyzed from oceans worldwide. Recently, we were featured on Yellowstone Public Radio in a piece produced by news director Jackie Yamanaka.

To gather the hundreds of samples in our marine study, ASC recruited volunteer sailors, surfers, divers and paddlers traveling to the world’s most remote oceans and trained them on a set of simple sampling protocols. In the 2.5 years since the project launched, ASC’s team of ocean adventurers has compiled perhaps the most robust dataset of its kind. You can view our map by clicking here.

This spring, ASC expanded its research to freshwater, looking to identify the sources of pollution worldwide. The Gallatin Initiative is a hyper-focused effort, in which we plan to work with local NGO, government and business partners to reduce the amount of plastic entering our home watershed.  

You can learn more about the Gallatin Microplastics Initiative sand sign up to sample during the first year at Sign-ups close August 23, 2015.


Editor's Note: Emily Stifler Wolfe is the media and outreach manager at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. Prior to joining ASC in 2014, she was managing editor of Explore Big Sky newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine in Big Sky. When she’s not on the couch recovering from a broken leg, she is an avid backcountry skier and rock climber.