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Group Testing Montana Waterbodies For Microplastics

Skye Borden with Environment Montana is collecting samples from the Yellowstone River in Billings to test for microplastics September 12.
Skye Borden with Environment Montana is collecting samples from the Yellowstone River in Billings to test for microplastics September 12.

The results of a plastic contamination survey of 50 waterways in Montana is expected in October.

Skye Borden, director of Environment Montana, pulls up to a popular fishing access along the Yellowstone River near Billings with 80 large glass jars in the back of her car.

It’s her last day of gathering water samples, which she’ll test for microplastic, small pieces of plastic that can come from things like clothing plastic bags and bottles.

Borden carries a cardboard platter full of these jars to the rocky shore.

The Missoula-based Environment Montana is a regional affiliate of Environment America, an organization that advocates for environment-friendly policies.

Over the last four months, Borden has sampled rivers, streams and lakes all across the state.

She’s trying to determine if plastic is in Montana’s water bodies and if it is, how much. Some of the plastic pollution is so small it’s hard to see without a microscope.

She wades into the water and ducks a glass jar beneath the surface.

“We do try to sample upstream because our clothes contain plastics. The Muck Boots I'm wearing contain plastics. The jeans that I'm wearing have a little bit of stretchy material in them that is a plastic derivative. So, in order not to contaminate the sample, I always try to sample upstream,” Borden says.

Borden says they’ve found microscopic bits of plastic in more than 60 percent of the sites they sampled.

She says some of that may be coming from cities like Seattle when microscopic plastic evaporates and travels elsewhere via rain and snow.

“But based on the amount of secondary plastic that we found in the waterways, I think we can conclude that a pretty significant part is coming from just Montanans using the river and that it’s breaking down in our river ecosystems here,” Borden says.

In the second part of the survey, Borden goes around with a trash bag and collects whatever garbage she sees, like a granola bar wrapper.

“This has a little recycling sign,” Borden says with a laugh. "Recycle always."

Borden believes most of the trash she finds is dropped accidentally.

She says it takes a plastic bag 10 to 20 years to biodegrade and styrofoam 500 years. She says it’s unclear what microplastic pollution in freshwater could mean for human or animal health.

The study of microplastics in freshwater and groundwater is new but has increased over the last five years.

That’s according to Todd Seib with the Missoula Valley Water Quality District.

He’s also surveying local water for microplastic pollution.

“We’re right at that stage of trying to find out if it’s there and, if it is there, is it a concern? I think other studies have shown that plastics can be a concern for wildlife, and we know that the chemicals that are in plastics and even the chemicals that are now being shown to absorb to plastics can be a concern, but some of those studies are really new and we don’t know that answer for Montana and Montana waters yet,” Seib says.

Borden with Environment Montana hopes these surveys and studies will help Montanans to learn more about keeping local water clean.

“I think there’s a need for us to all take individual accountability but my hope is that we’ll continue to think of broader, systematic ways that we can tackle the pollution problem. I think it does have to involve the corporation that are introducing the plastic into our lives in the first place,” Borden says.

She aims to release the final results of her 50-site survey next month.

Copyright 2019 Yellowstone Public Radio

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