Eagle River Watershed Council: Microplastics travel in a surprising way, but we can take action
Our society is no stranger to environmental concerns and dangers.
Industrialization and urbanization have created air quality concerns from smog and smoke. Climate change has brought increased atmospheric temperatures, volatile weather patterns and water scarcity in the West. Our everyday lives are awash with concern about pollution and chemicals.
We see images of plastic bags and bottles clogging rivers and drifting through the seas, but have you ever thought about plastic in the air? A new study has shown that the dust in our atmosphere is comprised of nearly 4% plastic particles.
A University of Utah team, under the direction of Janice Brahney, recently studied 11 conservation areas and national parks throughout the southwest and found high concentrations of microplastics in remote areas. Parks closer to urban centers, such as Rocky Mountain National Park near Boulder, revealed the greatest microplastic concentrations in the study. More concerning is that the largest amounts were found at the tops of mountains and in high alpine streams and lakes.
Automobiles and roadways are major contributors of microplastics, due to the small rubber particles that fleck off tires and brake components. Vehicle exhaust creates airflow and brings the particles up into higher strata of the atmosphere, where they then circulate. Straight and windy roadways can also act as runways for these particles, as winds push particles along, unrestrained by trees and shrubs.
As these microplastics deposit in the environment, they can build up in animals and humans through the food chain, negatively impacting health and potentially releasing toxins.
Limiting the purchase and consumption of single-use plastics is a great place to start to help curtail this issue. The use of packaged meals, plastic cutlery and water bottles are avoidable if we just take a little more time to prep our food in reusable containers and plan ahead.
Food bought in bulk often has less packaging than smaller-sized options, but this can be a tricky balance with the serious issue of food waste. Divide up bulk purchases with another household or a neighbor. Try to buy fresh produce and prepare it yourself at home. Bring reusable containers to your local butcher or grocery store for meat products, or ask for meats to be wrapped in paper, instead of plastic or Styrofoam.
Bringing your own reusable grocery bags to the store reduces the need for plastic or even paper bags. You may have to bag your own groceries during the pandemic, but that is the least we can do to cut back on plastics.
Once we are able to gather in large groups again, bring reusable cups, plates and silverware to celebrations and cookouts. If single-use items are unavoidable, find biodegradable, plant-based alternatives and dispose of them in local industrial compost bins. Celebrate milestones without balloons, whose plastic and ribbons often float into the air. Plastic straws are another easy thing to ditch — there are many reusable options, such as steel straws or even travel-sized and compactable straws.
Though legislation has limited the use of plastic microbeads in beauty products, making informed decisions about the contents of these products can also cut down on plastics. Another option is to buy beauty products, cleansers and shampoos in larger or refillable containers.
Around 70% of the microplastics found are in the form of fibers, which come from clothing particles, such as fleece and polyester. Some companies, such as Patagonia and Prana, are working to increase their use of natural fibers, such as cotton, in place of plastic-based fibers. Economies of scale must be created for the production of these items to make more durable clothing options affordable to all.
Driving less is another solution. As mentioned, vehicular use and roadways contribute significantly to the spread of the microplastics, particularly to remote areas. With the shifting trends of remote work, available public transportation and good old-fashioned car-pooling, we can reduce the spread of these particles through our sensitive ecosystems, while reducing emissions at the same time.
It can be overwhelming to carry the weight of the world’s issues on our shoulders, but if we all take small steps every day, we can make a substantial difference.
Kate Isaacson is the projects manager for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit erwc.org.