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Not Just an Ocean Problem: Microplastics Found in MT Watershed

Plastic particles were found in the majority of samples collected by volunteers for the Gallatin Microplastics Initiative. (Courtesy of Adventure Scientists)
Plastic particles were found in the majority of samples collected by volunteers for the Gallatin Microplastics Initiative. (Courtesy of Adventure Scientists)
May 3, 2018

BOZEMAN, Mont. – Even as scientists discover worrying evidence of the large amount of plastic floating in the ocean, there's growing evidence the issue is far more pervasive.

A recent study by the environmental group Adventure Scientists has found small pieces of plastic are all across the Gallatin Watershed in southwest Montana.

With the help of 120 local volunteers, the Gallatin Microplastics Initiative collected samples from 75 sites in the watershed and found tiny plastic particles in 57 percent of them.

Katie Christiansen, project manager for the Gallatin Microplastics Initiative, says Adventure Scientists decided to study the headwaters near Bozeman because the microplastics issue has been publicized mainly as an issue for oceans.

"All streams flow to the ocean, and so we were curious about how freshwater water bodies were contributing to what has been originally defined as a marine problem,” she explains. “And it turns out, it's not just a marine problem. It's a problem for freshwater systems all over the world."

Microplastics are defined as plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters long.

Christiansen says the particles are small enough to travel through the air. She says microplastics largely come from the decomposition of larger plastics and synthetic clothing.

Understanding the dangers of microplastics is still in its infancy, but scientists have discovered they accumulate at the bottom of the food chain.

They've caused changes in hormones for some aquatic organisms and can interact with other pollutants to affect cell function.

The prevalence of microplastics in headwaters is concerning because these bodies typically feed drinking water supplies.

Christiansen says 80 percent of plastics researchers found came from the microfibers of synthetic textiles. She says many of these microfibers come off when people launder their clothes, and so there are ways individuals can stop the flow of microplastics into the environment.

"That could be by, one, laundering less often,” she points out. “Two, installing a filter on your washing machine or your dryer to capture plastics as they come off, and then dispose of them properly. And it can also be purchasing clothes that are going to hold up better."

The Gallatin initiative is part of Adventure Scientists' Global Microplastics Project. While particles were found in the majority of Gallatin samples, the problem is much more widespread elsewhere.

Adventure Scientists found microplastics in 89 percent of the group’s marine samples and 51 percent of its freshwater samples worldwide.

The World Economic Forum estimates there's 150 million tons of plastic in the world's oceans.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT