Plastic pollution in our oceans is the subject of increasing global concern but our rivers, streams and watersheds are not immune to its contamination.
BY SOPHIE TSAIRIS
David Breck follows Black Butte Creek, tracing its flow upstream in search of its headwaters. Trudging through 4 feet of snow, he snowshoes toward the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park.
Three miles in, his GPS app shows he has reached the spot he’s looking for. He kneels down, sinking into the snow, and using the claw end of a hammer, starts digging. The snow is too deep, and unable to access the source, he walks downstream a quarter mile to find an accessible patch of open running water.
Breck co-owns and manages Bridger Brewing, and has been a Bozeman, Montana resident for over 20 years. He admits that when Adventure Scientists first emailed him about helping with a microplastics project, he didn’t respond right away. In fact, at the time Breck had no idea what microplastics were.
In 1955, LIFE magazine published a story titled “Throwaway Living.” The article celebrated plastic as a miracle material that would save the American housewife from drowning in dirty dishes. Two generations later, we are drowning in plastics.
Each spring, the blanket of snow covering the Northern Rockies and Greater Yellowstone melts, unveiling water bottles, Snickers wrappers, ski straps, and a myriad of other miscellaneous plastic, discarded or lost but far from decomposed.
Plastics were first created in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland to replace a demand for ivory used for making billiard balls, but exploded onto the market after World War II. Since this boom in production, about 8 billion tons of plastic have been produced, making our daily lives easier and cheaper with lighter, stronger goods. Once used, plastics are recycled, or more often thrown in the trash. They may crumble into tiny pieces, but nonetheless can persist in the environment for thousands of years.
Until January 2018, the United States was exporting at least one-third of its recycling to other countries, with half of that slated for China. For decades China has sorted through the recycling of other nations, but has recently declared a trade ban on 24 kinds of solid waste in an effort to protect its environmental and health interests. As piles of recyclable plastics build up in developed nations with nowhere to send it, the question becomes where the “away” in “throwaway living” will be in the future.
Plastic has been a gateway to innovation in medicine, production, outdoor recreation and efficient living. Our consumption of it has outpaced scientific study of its impacts on human health and the environment, but research is catching up and the prognosis for the planet is dire.
The Dominican Republic, known for its pristine ivory beaches, has been gaining international attention for a continuous and shocking wave of plastic garbage crashing onto its shores. The plastic is being pushed to the beaches from trash piles that have formed out in the ocean, far from any major city. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawaii, is the most infamous of these piles, and has become a graveyard for at least 87,000 tons of discarded plastic and debris. The Garbage Patch and its plastic wave are only a few symptoms of the larger global problem.
There is a perception that plastic pollution is a coastal problem, but people are beginning to connect the issue with headwaters communities throughout the inner-mountain West. The rivers in our small mountain towns eventually lead to the ocean and within these towns, individuals, organizations and businesses are making waves that can help turn the tides of plastic waste.
"We’ve taken small steps in the right direction. But the most important thing that has come of it is that it starts a conversation with people about plastic waste when they come through our door."
Having located the source he was searching for, Beck pulls a metal growler out of his pack, a vessel he is familiar with. Today he will not be filling the canteen with beer, but with water samples from Black Butte Creek. He fills it with water, caps it, labels it and puts it back in his pack. This is the third site Breck has been to in the past few months, collecting water samples for Adventure Scientists’ Gallatin Microplastics Project. He now knows that a microplastic is a piece of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters long, and is volunteering his time to collect data that will help scientists learn how they are affecting his community, and what to do about it.
Adventure Scientists, a nonprofit based in Bozeman that provides researchers with difficult-to-obtain data relating to environmental issues, has been studying microplastics in the world’s oceans since 2013. The organization began looking at the problem locally in 2015, in freshwater ecosystems closer to home.
The goal of the project was to collect baseline data on microplastics in the Gallatin River watershed—where they exist, their concentration, and how they might affect the local ecosystem and surrounding communities. More than 60 trained volunteers, like Breck, returned to varying sites on the Gallatin River and its tributaries, sampling for microplastics to create a profound picture of plastic pollution throughout the watershed.
Known widely for its appearance in the film A River Runs Through It, the Gallatin River flows from a source 7,000 feet above sea level in Yellowstone National Park. Its watershed forms the headwaters of the largest river system in the Lower 48 states, the Missouri-Mississippi.
“We wanted to know if this river, with it’s headwaters system located in America’s first national park, flowing through both wilderness areas and federal land, is part of a local problem as well as a global problem,” said project director Katie Christiansen.
After sampling 72 sites in the watershed, the study showed 57 percent of Gallatin River water samples contained microplastic pollution.
The long-term effects of plastic pollution on freshwater ecosystems are still understudied, but known threats include entanglement or entrapment of fish and other aquatic organisms in larger pieces of debris. Less visibly, microplastics can accumulate in fish and other organisms that ingest them, causing endocrine disruption and behavioral changes. The tiny plastics act like magnets, attracting other pollutants like PCBs, a group of toxic, man-made chemicals that can impair the health of aquatic organisms. Once ingested, these pollutants can travel up the food chain.
“Microplastics are here,” Christiansen said. “They are in the air we breathe and in the water we drink. If we are finding microplastics in high alpine lakes and at the headwaters of remote rivers, then they are everywhere.”
Christiansen says business owners like Breck are the key to getting the community involved with this issue. “He is so concerned about the way his business is contributing to the problems in our world and he has taken steps to do something real about it,” she said. Bridger Brewing has eliminated as much one-time-use packaging as possible and now uses glass mason jars and metal straws in place of plastic.
“We’ve taken small steps in the right direction,” Breck said. “But the most important thing that has come of it is that it starts a conversation with people about plastic waste when they come through our door.”
"Microplastics and marine debris are solvable problems, but we need data, and we need to raise awareness."
Kirsten Kapp holds a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries management and a master’s in conservation biology. She spent years studying bear-human conflict. Now Kapp is a professor at Central Wyoming College where she studies and teaches about how fish are affected by water pollution. Nobody seemed to be doing research on plastic pollution in freshwater rivers, so she turned to a source in her own backyard.
In July 2016, Kapp began a study sampling and documenting microplastic pollution in the Snake River, which flows for 1,078 miles and is the largest tributary of the Columbia River. Beginning at its headwaters at the boundary of Yellowstone National Park in the remote Wyoming mountains, she took samples along every 50 miles of the river as it flows through Idaho, Oregon and Washington, where it meets the Columbia River.
Kapp’s study provides baseline data of microplastics in a freshwater river and locates several hotspot areas that stand out for the quantity of microplastics found. “Microplastics and marine debris are solvable problems, but we need data, and we need to raise awareness,” she said.
Kapp’s study on the Snake River detected some level of microplastics in nearly all of the water samples. She found that fibers were the most dominant type of microplastics in the river, and that the highest concentrations of plastics were in areas of low population density but high agricultural use.
She doesn’t think sampling rivers for microplastics is as different from studying bear-human conflict as people might expect.
“Often when we received calls about a nuisance bear it was often an animal getting into someone’s garbage,” Kapp said. “We ended up setting traps around dumpsters to catch the bears and relocate them. I always thought it was odd that we had to relocate the bears instead of trying to change human behavior.”
Kapp thinks nuisance bears and plastic pollution have some things in common. Both issues require better understanding of the problems, and the willingness of people to change their behaviors. “And,” she added, “I’m still dealing with people’s trash.”
"If we can use microorganisms to biologically degrade plastic materials and form the degraded compounds into a new plastic bottle or packaging material this would lower the level of plastics we either send to the landfill or incinerate."
Few creatures can survive the conditions of Yellowstone National Park’s iconic geysers, which appear to the naked eye to be devoid of life. However, Brent Peyton and Dana Skorupa have been studying thermophiles, or heat-loving microbes, specifically adapted to living in a hot spring environment.
Peyton, the principal investigator on the project and director of Montana State University’s Thermal Biology Institute, and Skorupa, assistant research professor, are working with the Thermal Biology Institute at the University of Montana to understand these exceptional organisms. Their goal is to grow these thermophiles in their lab and use them to develop green technology for recycling plastics.
The microorganisms flourishing in Yellowstone’s hot springs are dining on the same “plastic soup” that can be harmful to most other creatures. The team has found that they are breaking down plastics that fall into the hot springs and using it for food. To test this, they are collecting a mixture of sediment and water from hot springs in the park, and transporting it back to their lab at MSU. In the lab, they’re growing these microorganisms with only plastic as a food source in an environment that replicates that of a hot spring, in temperatures around 150 F.
With the help of Park Service rangers, Peyton and Skorupa collect plastic trash that has fallen into the geysers. Under a microscope, the team will be able to tell if the plastic samples are already being colonized and decomposed by microbes.
“When we go to the hot springs to get samples for DNA extraction, at least half of the organisms we detect are so different that we can’t even name them,” Peyton said. “There is a lot of unknown, but I think in the next year or so we will hear a lot of discoveries of organisms that can degrade plastic.”
He is optimistic that some of the organisms could naturally break down plastics into their raw components. This would allow them to be used to make new plastic products. The research is still in its beginning stages, but Peyton says the potential of finding long-term stability of the world’s plastic problems is hopeful.
“If we can use microorganisms to biologically degrade plastic materials and form the degraded compounds into a new plastic bottle or packaging material this would lower the level of plastics we either send to the landfill or incinerate,” Skorupa said.
Yellowstone National Park Lodge runs accommodations, food and beverage, and transportation programs in the park. Dylan Hoffman, director of sustainability, says having a “softer footprint” is part of the company’s founding values. In 2016, they stopped selling plastic water bottles and have since adopted a canned water bottle, made of aluminum. The can, which is easier to recycle, is outfitted with a re-sealable aluminum screw top. Hotel lobbies and food service outlets are outfitted with water bottle filling stations, so guests can use their own refillable bottles in place of buying new ones.
Before Yellowstone Lodges stopped selling plastic water bottles, they were going through about a quarter of a million plastic bottles annually. “The water in Yellowstone is amazing; it is coming from the top of the watershed. It is free, clean and quality water. We are encouraging guests to drink it,” Hoffman said.
Yellowstone Lodges is working with the Philipsburg Brewing Company in Philipsburg, Montana, to bring “Yellowstone Water” to their patrons. The owners of the brewery bought Montana Silver Springs, an old bottling plant, in 2014, and are working toward commercially canning water. Hoffman said the next order that is put in for canned water will likely be filled by Philipsburg Brewing Company.
“We are always trying to find the latest and greatest in sustainable action,” Hoffman said. “Some of it may seem small, but low hanging fruit grows back.”
"Ocean issues are not on many people’s radar here in the Rockies, but they do impact us intimately in terms of the rivers we fish, the food we grow, and even the powder we shred."
Gianna Savoie, a scientist-turned-natural history filmmaker, grew up in the Ocean State of Rhode Island and moved to Montana in 2010 to teach at MSU. After establishing the nonprofit organization, Ocean Media Institute, she received a grant from the Bozeman Community Area Foundation to launch a middle school program called Mountain Mermaids and Mermen, which explores the impact of mountain communities on oceans, and vice versa.
As part of the program, eighth graders from Headwaters Academy approached local Bozeman businesses, asking them to stop offering plastic straws to their patrons. The students convinced 16 local businesses to sign the pledge.
“Every community has a plastic problem,” Savoie said. “We work with communities to learn about the plastic problems most affecting them and then create a locally led, solutions-driven campaign with them to solve it.”
She considers recycling to be a good first step, but to really make an impact, she suggests that consumers avoid as many single-use plastics as they can, and to continue to educate future generations about the problem.
“Ocean issues are not on many people’s radar here in the Rockies, but they do impact us intimately in terms of the rivers we fish, the food we grow, and even the powder we shred,” Savoie said. “Plastics work their way into our fish species and right up the food chain; they are even being detected in beer! This is definitely a wake-up call for those of us in the mountains.”
Most of us use, wear and spend our lives surrounded by plastic. As we walk, hike or ski, we are unknowingly leaving behind invisible trails of microfibers. Knowing this, we can choose to participate in the many solutions it will take to reduce plastic pollution.
It is going to require scientific research and creative initiatives that can be applied locally, as well as globally, to make a dent. As individuals we can encourage progress by voting for elected officials who prioritize the environment, supporting local businesses that minimize their use of single-use plastics, staying up-to-date on research, and supporting local initiatives. In our daily lives we can practice conscious consumption by avoiding disposable products and those that contain excessive or non-recyclable plastic.
Throughout the Northern Rockies, innovative solutions in research and education, and simple shifts in business practices are making strides in the right direction. Americans have come a long way since the “throwaway living” era, and most would agree that a sink full of dirty dishes is preferable to a sinkhole of plastic waste in our oceans. The solutions are endless, even exciting, and they begin with each and every one of us.
This year, the weekly summer festival, Music on Main, in Teton Valley, Idaho, went plastic free by introducing a reusable steel cup rental service. At the beginning of the evening, you pay a $10 deposit for the cup, and at the end of the night if you can return it for your full deposit.
Missoula, Montana is well on its way to a zero waste resolu- tion, Zero by Fifty, making it the seventh community in the Rocky Mountain region to pass a zero waste initiative, and local companies are jumping on board. Logjam Presents, a Missoula-based entertain- ment company, launched its Going Green Initiative in 2017, implementing a comprehensive composting and recycling program across its venues.
Sophie Brett Tsairis is a freelance environmental journalist and writer working under the big skies of the West. Born and raised on the coast of Maine, she’s a passionate boogie boarder, mountain runner, rock climber and split-boarder. Committed to giving voice to all things wild, she’s driven to inform readers about contemporary issues through stories of the natural world.