JACKSON, WY — Plastic pollution is a hot topic right now. Around the country and world, photos of aquatic animals with straws stuck in their nostrils or plastic around their necks are encouraging people to ditch single-use plastics in an effort to keep our oceans clean.
But landlocked states like Wyoming are not immune to plastic pollution in our waterways. Central Wyoming College Professor Kirsten Kapp studies something called microplastics, which are exactly what they sound like: tiny plastic particles that make their way into our rivers, streams, reservoirs, and lakes. When Kapp began her research in 2015 studies on freshwater were few. “I kept thinking, ‘we won’t find anything here,'” Kapp said. Now we can conclude that they are fairly ubiquitous in the environment, even in uninhabited areas.
Kapp will present her research among other experts at a presentation and panel discussion called “Plastic Pollution from the Mountains to the Sea” Thursday, May 9 at the Teton County Library. She will be joined by Rachael Miller, founder of the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean and CEO of the Cora Ball, Heather Overholser, Teton County Director of Public Works, and Jonathan Schechter, Founder and Executive Director of the Charture Institute and Jackson Town Councilman. The presentation is sponsored by CWC and the Teton Conservation District.
So where do microplastics come from? Turns out, plenty of things we put down our drain carry microplastics. One of the more popular and obvious culprits is exfoliating facial scrubs. Those little beads that make your skin feel nice and smooth? Microplastics. But microplastics also come out of sunscreens, wastewater, and just broken down litter. Clothing is also a major source — every time we wash and dry our clothes, little microfibers seep into the water and out of our dryer vents.
While Kapp can say with certainty that there are microplastics in the Snake River, the effects of those microplastics are less clear. Much is known about the effects on organisms in lab studies — ingesting plastics can create endocrine system stress, altered behavior, and reduced fecundity, Kapp explained. But less is understood about the ecosystem-level impacts of microplastic pollution. It’s possible microplastics pose little risk, Kapp said, though she doubts that is the case. The “million dollar question” is whether microplastics are a danger to humans. We don’t know, Kapp said, but it’s part of what scientists are trying to find out.
Rachael Miller is perhaps the evening’s headliner, Kapp said. Miller founded The Rozalia Project for Clean Oceans and has committed her life to not only studying marine debris in the Atlantic, but also coming up with solutions. One of her solutions? The Cora Ball, which helps collect microfibers from your laundry.
Miller conducts her research from a rather famous vessel called the “American Promise,” which once held the world record for a solo around-the-world race. She sails her ship around through urban coastal areas in New England conducting beach cleanups, sampling the water for microplastics, and offering outreach and education on plastic pollution in the ocean.
Learn more about The Rozalia Project:
“Plastic Pollution From the Mountains to the Sea” is part of a larger educational outreach effort about litter and waste in our community. After the presentation on May 11, the community is encouraged to participate in the Town Clean-Up. This year they will be given data sheets so that they can record the types of trash they collect along their route. CWC and StrawFreeJH are partnering to collect data that will provide insight into the types and amounts of litter collected in the community. Data collection is crucial in identifying patterns of litter so we can implement successful solutions.
After the cleanup on May 11, CWC will lead an educational trash sort activity at the EcoFair. Selected litter from Flat Creek will be sorted by type (i.e. water bottles, bags, food wrappers, etc.) and arranged from upstream to downstream to create a visual display of the “longitudinal trash profile” of Flat Creek.
Just because we don’t know the full effects of microplastics on our ecosystem yet, that doesn’t mean we can’t start to take action now. The most important thing to do, Kapp said, is just to reduce your plastic use and consumption. Spend a little extra time thinking about what you buy and how much litter that item will contribute. “We can make choices that can drive big changes,” Kapp said. “We can influence the redesign process and the food packaging industry with the choices we make and the pressure we put on manufacturers. Just think twice.”
“Plastic Pollution From the Mountains to the Sea” is a free presentation in the Ordway Auditorium at Teton County Library. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. for a public reception, and the presentation will begin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 9.