PLASTICS

by Molly Absolon

 As a scientist, Kirsten Kapp had been thinking about the problem with microplastics for a while, but the concern really hit home when she participated in a volunteer cleanup day at Trail Creek Pond in the south end of Teton Valley. As she wandered around picking up trash, the Victor resident was surprised by the amount of old fishing line she found buried in the soil, the number of plastic bait containers that lay hidden in the grass, and the sheer volume of broken bits of old Styrofoam coolers mixed in with the dirt. Suddenly, she realized, plastics were not just the ocean problem she’d been reading about. Plastic pollution is also affecting the Rocky Mountain West.

Kirsten is a professor at Central Wyoming College in Jackson. She studied wildlife and fisheries management at the University of Vermont and went on to get a master’s degree in conservation biology and sustainable development at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Long interested in the interaction between humans and wildlife and the ways humans affect their environment, she’d been reading a lot about researchers finding plastics in the stomachs of seabirds and ocean mammals. But she hadn’t worked on the issue herself until she spent a summer as a visiting scientist aboard American Promise, the mothership of the Rozalia Project, a nonprofit dedicated to clean oceans and founded by an old sailing friend of Kirsten’s.

During that experience, Kirsten and her students found microplastics in the stomachs of herring they caught miles from shore in the Atlantic Ocean. Kirsten concedes there’s a chance that some of that plastic came from the researchers’ clothing—they weren’t controlling for contamination—but regardless, finding it in fish that spent their lives far from any human activity indicated to her just how far up the food chain microplastics had traveled.

Back home in Victor, Kirsten’s scientific wheels started to turn. She wondered where the microplastics found in the ocean were originating and just how prevalent they were elsewhere, specifically in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Snake River watershed she calls home.

In 2014, Kirsten set out to determine if there were microplastics in the watershed and, if so, how much. Along with a research assistant, she collected water samples of the Snake River every fifty miles for 1,400 miles. The team started at the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park and finished at the mouth of the Columbia River where it flows into the Pacific Ocean, sampling the surface water along the way for evidence of microplastics. Some of their findings were good, she says. They found no microplastics in the water they collected near Yellowstone; as they moved downstream, however, plastics became more and more prevalent. There were some spikes, which Kirsten says looked like they corresponded to agriculture or wastewater treatment facilities (but for which she acknowledges lacking scientific proof thus far). And, while plastics are not as ubiquitous in the Snake as in certain other environments around the world, their presence in one of the cleanest places on Earth was still alarming.

“It can be deflating,” Kirsten says. “For a while, I felt pretty hopeless. It seemed as if no one cared, but the media is beginning to catch on and that is helping educate people.”

Kirsten’s study, and others similar to it, have led to further investigations into microplastic pollution and its sources. Kirsten thinks that fibers from synthetic clothing—pile jackets, polypropylene long underwear, polyester and acrylic sweaters—are most likely the primary sources of the microplastics found in waterways surrounding Teton Valley. According to IFLScience.com, each time synthetic fabrics are washed, they can release plastic microfibers into the water. That water then flows into wastewater treatment plants. Currently, these facilities are not designed to filter out plastics. As a result, lighter bits drain out with the treated water. Heavier pieces sink to the bottom of the holding ponds and are incorporated into “bio-sludge,” which in some places—including parts of Idaho—is used for fertilizing fields.

The plastic can then get into the food system and, eventually, into humans. It’s estimated that 209,000 tons of plastic microfibers are introduced to the world’s waters every year.
Technically, microplastics are fragments of plastic smaller than five millimeters, or about the length of a grain of rice, that result from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic. Most of the microplastics Kirsten and her assistant collected during their study were less than 300 microns in size, invisible without the aid of a microscope. The source of microplastic pollution includes everything from plastic bottles to clothing fibers; from plastic beads added to cosmetics to packaging and grocery bags. Microplastics have been found nearly everywhere: in waterways, such as that which Kirsten’s study demonstrated, but also in food, soil, air, freshwater fish, marine life, and, as a study published in October 2018 revealed, human waste as well. The effect of microplastics on humans and animals is not entirely understood, but more and more scientists are looking into its impacts as awareness of its prevalence in our environment grows.

“There was a study that looked at earthworms in agricultural soil,” Kirsten says. “There’s lots of research into the effects of plastics on organisms. The severity depends on the organism and the exposure, so it’s hard to generalize.

“But it’s clear that plastic is an endocrine disrupter and that it puts stress on the liver. There are signs that it affects feeding behavior and reduces reproduction rates in certain organisms. These studies have been done in labs, and the levels of microplastics involved may or may not reflect what is out in the world. That’s why sampling studies like ours are important. We need to know the concentration of microplastics in our waterways to understand its impact.”

Kirsten’s study, published in 2016, was one of the first to sample the entire length of a river in the United States. It was also one of the longest watersheds in the world sampled to date. Her findings helped add to the understanding the presence of microplastics in freshwater systems, which at the time the research was conducted represented a gap in scientific knowledge. And she continues to explore the topic. This winter, one of her research assistants, Zach Andres, sampled snow in the Teton region to look for the presence of microplastics. Kirsten also hosted a panel discussion in Jackson in May of 2018 to discuss plastic pollution and ways people can reduce their contribution to the problem.

“Plastic is a great product,” Kirsten says. “It’s allowed for incredible advances in the medical field, in cars, and in technology of all kinds. But we are using plastics where we don’t need to.”

Plastics were hailed as the miracle product not so long ago, and they still are critical in today’s world. Our lives became easier and more convenient and our diets more varied with the advent of plastic. Plastic clamshells enable us to purchase organic baby spinach and strawberries in January at Broulim’s grocery store in Driggs. Plastic allows us to eat takeout with a fork or have a latte on the road, far from our supply of reusable utensils or our to-go cups. It enables us to buy all kinds of products—shampoo, toothpaste, lotion, medicines, laundry detergent, dish soap—without even thinking about the implications of the packaging. But, despite some limited efforts to recycle certain types of plastic, most of it ends up in the landfill, on the roadside, or in the ocean where it takes thousands of years to break down. That part of the convenience of plastic is the part that worries many.

Microplastics also attract toxins. Pollutants in water are drawn to chemicals in plastic, coating the surface, which means that when marine animals ingest plastic, they also ingest toxins.

In the United States, California is the only state that has banned single-use plastic bags, but a number of municipalities, including Jackson, Wyoming, have introduced community-wide bans. Idaho passed a law in 2016 forbidding local governments from enacting plastic bag bans, but as public pressure to reduce waste grows, some Idaho grocery stores—such as the Albertsons stores in Idaho Falls—are looking at implementing their own bag bans in the next few years.

In Teton Valley, the impact of plastic pollution can be hard to see. Sophisticated waste-management systems mean that, for most consumers, once an item gets dropped into a trash can, it disappears; and, with its disappearance, most people stop thinking about its impact. But there is growing concern nonetheless, and here and across the country, efforts to reduce waste or offer alternatives to plastics are gaining traction. Google “plastic free” and you’ll find sites with names like “My Plastic-Free Life,” “Life Without Plastic,” and “How I Kicked My Plastic Habit.” Some of the measures promoted by zero-waste advocates can be daunting—making your own toothpaste or lotion for example—but many others require a few simple changes of habit that can make a difference.

Examples of local efforts include the Teton Valley Foundation’s 2018 initiative to reduce the number of plastic cups used at its eight-week summer Music on Main concert series through a stainless-steel cup rental program. TVF’s executive director, Lauren Bennett, says the concept began with Steve Kitto, of Liquid Hardware in Victor, who said he could make stainless steel reusable pint glasses to supplant the classic plastic cups used at Music on Main at the time. Lauren wasn’t sure TVF could afford to buy cups. That’s when Dave Hudasko, from trash-pickup provider RAD Curbside, jumped in and said RAD would sponsor the program and buy the first round. He persuaded Spoons Bistro to agree to wash the cups after each use. Suddenly, it seemed like a no-brainer, Lauren says.
“Their energy motivated me,” she says. “We decided to start slowly and bought two hundred and fifty cups. I was so nervous that first night, but we sold out of them in a couple of hours and ended up ordering 1,400 more.”

By the end of the season, Music on Main had used 45 percent fewer plastic cups than it had in the past. For 2019, Teton Valley Foundation is going completely plastic cup-free for beer and wine sales, thanks to the success of the 2018 program launch. In addition, Teton Valley Community Recycling set up a hydration station at the concerts so people could refill water bottles rather than purchase bottled water.

WorldCast Anglers, headquartered in Victor, has also implemented a number of practices to reduce its plastic use. Clients are given aluminum reusable water bottles instead of bottled water to drink from during days on the river. Guides carry growlers of chilled water in coolers to refill the bottles as needed. The company is also no longer selling fishing flies in plastic containers.

“At WorldCast Anglers, we work to protect and preserve the environment, all fish, and their supporting watersheds,” says Mike Dawkins, the company’s vice president. “It is so important to us [that] it’s listed in our statement of culture. We felt like hypocrites operating under this statement but continuing to contribute to our waste and landfills.
The elimination of single-use plastic water bottles on our full-day guided float trips was the first step of making sure we practiced what we preached.”

WorldCast’s “kick plastic” campaign started in 2016. Since then, the company estimates it has prevented 180,000 single-use water bottles from winding up in landfills and waste collection areas. Dawkins says that’s just the beginning.

Other local examples abound. Butter Café in Victor offers stainless-steel straws. Teton Valley Community Recycling has established three TerraCycle stations—one in Victor and two in Driggs—where people can drop off hard-to-recycle items like foil energy bar wrappers and toothpaste tubes. In Tetonia, Clawson Greens’ Community Supported Agriculture lettuce program uses compostable bags and allows participants to bring clean bags back to be reused. Barrels & Bins Community Market in Driggs accepts empty egg cartons, and, back in Victor, Alpine Air Coffee Roasting bags its beans in fully compostable bags.

The Community Foundation of Teton Valley’s annual Tin Cup Challenge fundraising event has gone to compostable cups and is working with Teton Valley Community Recycling to brainstorm other ways to reduce its overall impact.

And Chiang Mai Thai Kitchen, also in Victor, has begun using compostable to-go containers for all its carryout food. The containers are made from unbleached wheat fiber, which is a byproduct of wheat production and, therefore, a sustainable resource. Since the containers are made from wheat stalks and not the grain, they are still gluten-free, and will break down in home composters in two to four months.

Patrick Murphy, who owns Chiang Mai Thai Kitchen with his wife Sophia, says, “We realized very quickly running a business that it was our responsibility to provide the most eco-friendly options available. We also recycle glass, aluminum, tin, plastic, and cardboard. We’re doing our best.”
 While the impact may be minimal, such measures get people thinking.

“I’m not sure if bag bans or plastic straw bans make a dent, really,” Kirsten says. “But the importance is raising awareness.” And even that can be difficult.

“I’ve given lectures about microplastic pollution, and the next day students will still come in with their lunch in a Styrofoam container and a plastic bag. That can be discouraging. It’s hard
to change human behavior, and ultimately it really should be companies that take charge of making the change. The guilt shouldn’t rest on consumers.”

Dawkins, of WorldCast Anglers, says clients have been supportive of the company’s efforts to reduce waste, and many now bring their own refillable water bottles. However, he believes it’s his
company’s responsibility to walk its talk and do everything in its power to lead the way. He says he’s seen a number of local outfitters adopt their own kick plastic campaigns, and that major outdoor manufacturers like YETI Coolers and Orvis have also been supportive of the efforts. His hope is that the example set by these smaller companies will begin to ripple upward to larger ones.

Iris Saxer, the executive director of Teton Valley Community Recycling, says the size of the plastic problem can be overwhelming. That’s why she likes to focus at the local level, where habit changes can have an impact.

“Americans are attached to convenience,” she says. “To make changes, we have to find things that suit people’s lifestyles. Our emphasis is increasingly on source reduction. Make less waste. Hopefully, that message will start to get through to more and more companies, and they will begin to look at their packaging with that goal in mind.”