Finding Microplastics in the Earth’s Farthest Reaches
April 02, 2015
By Emily Stifler Wolfe, Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation
Just as Iceland faded from view, the crew cut their motors and hoisted the sails of the La Louise. It was nearly 6 p.m., and dusk was approaching.
The five women of the Shifting Ice and Changing Tides expedition set sail from Iceland on March 30, bound for the southwest coast of Greenland, where they planned to ski first descents and visually document glacial recession. On their way out of Nuuk Harbor, the boat had broken through chunks of sea ice, but now the water was smooth as they entered the Denmark Strait.
Time to collect ocean water samples.
The team had signed on to the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) Microplastics Project, which analyses water samples from oceans worldwide for microplastic—particles of plastics smaller than five millimeters in size.
Meghan Kelly and McKenna Peterson rigged the one-liter sample bottle from a string and hung it from the boat, but it only bounced as they sailed along at seven knots. Their thermometer, also dangling from a string, did the same.
“Eventually pretty much everyone on the boat was trying to figure out how to get water in the bottle,” Kelly recalls. “We ended up bringing a boat hook up to push the bottle down.”
Concerned they were going to lose the bottle and only contribute to the microplastics problem, they added a secondary tether for it.
Looking at the clear water, they thought maybe the ASC scientist wouldn’t find any microplastics in their samples.
PHOTO: KT MILLER
They guessed wrong. ASC’s partner scientist Abby Barrows found 62 pieces of the plastic total in their 3 samples, with an average of 10 pieces per liter.
Not only are the plastic particles themselves toxic, but other toxins including DDT, BPA, and pesticides adhere to them. Because the particles can resemble plankton, small aquatic life often eats them. The toxins biomagnify as they move up the food chain, accumulating in birds, sea life and humans.
Microplastics can come from several sources: They weather from debris like drink bottles and shopping bags; they’re laundered from synthetic clothing; and they wash down the drain in the form of microbeads, found in many common cosmetics and toothpaste.
In the past two years, ASC has engaged more than 350 ocean goers worldwide to collect samples for its marine microplastics research, among them sailors, kayakers, divers, surfers, and hikers. They’ve collected water from places including Alaska, Argentina, Thailand, and Antarctica, and we’ve found microplastic pollution in 94% of those samples.
Armed with this knowledge, ASC is expanding the project to freshwater—moving upstream, so to speak, to better understand the sources of this pollution. Starting this March, we’ll be recruiting adventurers from all walks to collect one-liter samples from streams, rivers, and lakes worldwide.
PHOTO: KT MILLER
In addition to gathering data for conservation, we believe in the importance of sharing that information.
Whether it’s talking with friends, family and coworkers; giving community presentations; social media and blogging; or speaking to mainstream media outlets, we encourage our adventure scientists to talk about the work they’re doing.
Because plastic is ubiquitous in modern culture, education is essential to reducing use and ultimately, decreasing the amount that ends up in our waterways.
“I was surprised to learn that the microplastics you can’t see are everywhere throughout the ocean, [not just in the five gyres],” Kelly said. “It’s something tangible for people to understand: the far-reaching impact of humanity.”
Emily Stifler Wolfe is the Marketing and Outreach Manager at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. Learn more about the ASC Microplastics Project and sign up to volunteer at www.adventurescience.org/microplastics.