It's hovering around 10 degrees and snowing sideways in west Yellowstone, country so thick with grizzlies the state urges hikers to travel in packs of no less than four. This place is a crystalline kind of flawless, a vast wilderness where bison have roamed, uninterrupted, since prehistory. But as remote as it is, my guide has brought me here to illustrate how significantly the land has changed. Miles from our car and a 30-minute drive from the nearest civilization—and armed with a GPS tracker that, if alerted, would dispatch a helicopter to our rescue—I'm here to trace the route plastic pollution has taken as it moves through the Rockies. As the sprawling mountains straddling Montana and Wyoming have shown, there are few places in this country it hasn't touched.
Strapped into a pair of cross-country skis, I've spent the last four hours nursing my ego after careening face-first down multiple hills and struggling to claw up offensively steep inclines. Muscles in my legs that I've never before identified are screaming; I'm vaguely aware my fingers have gone numb. I'm doing this, I tell myself, in the name of science.
A dozen yards ahead, confidently barreling through the two-foot-thick layer of snow that has blanketed this side of the national park, is Ricky Jones, a longtime snowboarder with a jaunty walk and lightning smile who works at the Bozeman-based research collective Adventure Scientists. He's leading me roughly four miles into the park to the headwaters of the Gallatin River, a 97-mile-long tributary named by Meriwether Lewis, who first encountered it in 1805, and I am trying not to ask him, again, how many miles lie ahead of us.
When Lewis came upon the river system, in search of the path that would lead him to the Pacific, he described it with subdued reverence in his journal. He could've written the entry yesterday: The riverbeds were "formed of smooth pebble and gravel, and the waters are perfectly transparent. ... The low grounds were still wide but not so extensive as near its mouth." Sacagawea recognized the land, he said, and knew the native tribes who once lived there. At first glance unassuming, the Gallatin serves as the headwaters for the Missouri River, making it part of the longest river system in North America and, by proxy, one of the most intricate and vast freshwater ecosystems in the world.
To reach the belly of the watershed, Jones and I ski through a fairy tale: 15-foot-tall evergreens laced with ice and snow arch overhead in cheery ellipticals, giving the appearance that they're whispering to each other; the snow is peppered with tracks from deer and rabbits. Inky black eyes the size of lima beans, likely belonging to the white ermines that burrow underground, fix themselves on us as we trudge through their forest. And though it's snowing, there's a celestial stillness to the air—as if we're dolls gliding through a snow globe, or suspended in a decompression chamber.
This is the fourth time Jones has hiked this route for Adventure Scientists, a non-profit environmental research organization. In three trips over two years (the first of which ended in frostbite that caused the tip of his nose to slough off), he gathered samples from three different points along the river, which the group shipped off to a scientist in Maine who examined them for the presence of microscopic plastic fibers. Over 100 other volunteers for the organization collected hundreds of water samples from 72 different sites across the Gallatin watershed in the same period. The results of the study, which closed last summer, were dispiriting. Fifty-seven percent of the samples, including those from the alpine waters I'd seen, contained plastic pollutants—impossibly small debris from clothing, equipment, or other manufactured goods—known as microfibers.
Looking down at the clothes we wear—a polyester-blend shirt or Gore-Tex windbreaker, maybe a pair of shoes with rubber soles—it's difficult to imagine them as anything less than perfectly durable. Yet it would be more accurate to think about fabric like it's a butterfly wing: so sensitive to the touch that one misguided brush could send its tiny scales spinning. (In fact, at about five micrometers wide, some microfibers are about 12 times smaller than a single scale on a butterfly wing.) Every time you wash a load of clothes, stretch out on a lawn, or go for a hike, you're almost certainly leaving microfibers behind, contributing to this pollution. Katie Christiansen, the director of Adventure Scientists' Gallatin microplastics study, calls the spread of microplastics "global, pervasive."
If you've heard at all about microfibers, it's likely from a handful of high-profile cases that have made for hysterical and often misleading headlines over the last decade. There's the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—or, as it's been unceremoniously dubbed, Trash Isles—the roughly eight-million-square-mile soup of plastic pollution floating in the Pacific Ocean that gained near-universal notoriety after British environmental activists urged the United Nations to recognize it as a country. Then there was the widely circulated study published nearly three years ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which predicted, based on extrapolation models, that 90 percent of birds now consume plastic pollutants of some kind. Never mind that those numbers are estimates partially based on data that's decades old—National Geographic declared in September of 2015 that "nearly every seabird on Earth is eating plastic."
Popular science education would have us believe that synthetic materials—the Gore-Tex windbreaker, the rubber soles, the bulky waste we've long been taught to recycle—are the most harmful to the human body and natural ecosystems. The truth is both broader and more nuanced. Research is beginning to indicate that all fibers, even natural ones like cotton, are harmful if they're found in places they don't belong—like, say, charging down the Gallatin, which funnels water from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. They're capable of binding to toxins and chemicals already polluting the environment, researchers say, carrying them farther than they could travel alone. The U.N. has adopted estimates that posit as many as 50 trillion microplastic particles travel the world's oceans. If accurate, it would mean there are 500 times more microplastic particles in our water than there are stars in our galaxy.
While the study of plastic pollution in marine ecosystems has been robust, the amount of money and time spent on equivalent research in freshwater networks is significantly lower. The United States Geological Survey, for example, provides block grants to researchers focused on water issues in each state, as well as a handful of American territories. Of those research programs, 30 scientists from 23 states responded to Pacific Standard, many of whom said they're aware of the scope of the microplastics problem and believe it's worthy of better, deeper study—yet only three belong to labs actually pursuing related research.
"What we have here in Bozeman is really unusual," Adventure Scientists' Christiansen says. "We have this data ... showing that microfibers, specifically, are polluting our watershed. That's not data that also exists for freshwater systems in other places. And it's so easy for it to be considered this marine problem—there's this perception that this isn't a problem for headwaters communities. But we get to say: 'No, no, no, this is a problem. In [landlocked], inner-mountain West, we need to talk about this and consider our options.'"
This is the problem with microplastic pollution: Few who have studied it would argue it's not an issue worthy of attention, but nobody knows precisely what impact it has on local ecosystems and on the human body. (Nobody assumes the pollution is good news.) It's not hyperbole to say that researchers focused on freshwater pollutants are building a new body of research from scratch. This business of emerging science is a chaotic, clamoring field, full of varying methods for sampling and testing the water, and different models for collecting the samples.
Some organizations, like Adventure Scientists, rely on citizen scientists, dispatching a coterie of trained volunteers to collect the samples. Consequently, they prefer the "grab" method of water collection, which is easier for their researchers, many of whom are young and don't have doctorates, to learn quickly and accurately (simply put, it requires volunteers to stick a jug in the river). Other researchers, like the microplastics research team at Cornell University's Soil & Water Lab, led by Lisa Watkins, have adapted methods from other researchers' studies but prefer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's method to analyze the samples; still others adapt the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines for collecting tap water contaminated with biological agents. (The former involves straining plastic through a sieve before drying and measuring it. The latter falls somewhere between that and the grab.) All three require slightly different equipment, skill, and effort. "That's the next big step—robust, reproducible [research]. That's a big problem right there. There's not a single standard," Watkins says. "There are very few scientific topics that are so new that new methodology is just being published. This is where science starts. This is where you have to begin, is trial and error."
Consequently, the field is rife with studies that either haven't been peer-reviewed, aren't reproducible, or aren't easily compared with similar research—and, as a result, it's difficult to know when to downplay dramatic research and when to sound the alarm. Digital journalism non-profit Orb Media, for example, attracted harsh criticism among water quality experts after it published terrifying findings last fall from a sweeping global survey of microplastic pollution it commissioned from researchers at the University of Minnesota.
Orb Media's study analyzed about 150 water samples collected from five continents, including from the EPA's own headquarters and Trump Tower in New York. The group eventually partnered with Public Radio International to announce the findings: that 83 percent of the world's tap water, and 94 percent of America's tap water, is contaminated by microfibers. Despite the fact that the work hadn't yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal and reflects only about two dozen samples collected on each continent, Orb declared with stunning certainty that, "from the halls of the U.S. Capitol to the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, women, children, men, and babies are consuming plastic with every glass of water."
"Walking that line, and dealing with that tension ... it's totally been challenging. And I struggle with that a lot," Christiansen says, though the Gallatin study she directed was much smaller in geographic scope and dealt with a more topographically homogenous region. Adventure Scientists also conducted a four-year-long global study of microplastics pollution, the results of which the organization is analyzing and preparing for publication. Unlike Orb Media, Adventure Scientists requires users to request access to the data instead of disseminating it widely; it also produced an interactive map detailing the names of each scientist who collected the roughly 2,600 samples. Initial analyses indicate that 72 percent of its samples contained microplastics—about 10 percent less than what Orb found in its own study. Peter Gleick, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, an international think tank focused on water policy, sums up that dynamic neatly: "The results [of Orb's study] seem grossly illogical to me. But I cannot really judge without seeing the actual scientific assessment."
In the absence of EPA guidelines—the agency does not require municipal water departments to test for microfibers—Bozeman might be the first American city to truly take up the challenge. Through relationships with local businesses and support from corporate sponsors like Patagonia, Adventure Scientists is working to reduce plastic consumption in Bozeman. But the scattershot nature of existing research makes microplastic pollution uniquely unsuited for the limelight. For now, researchers' best bet is an old-fashioned public outreach campaign, like advising residents to retro-fit washing machines with filtration systems designed to collect fibers from wastewater and urging shoppers to buy organic materials.
Christiansen compares the global fight to reduce microplastic pollution to the use of DDT, a ubiquitous pesticide the EPA eventually banned in 1972 because of its toxic effect on wildlife. "What did DDT have that we don't have? They had bald eagles. You know? They had these iconic animals that [were] this visual aid, a visual for death and populations crashing." Microplastics don't yet have a bald eagle—just the world's water systems, poisoned by the detritus we can't see.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine. It was first published online on April 30th, 2018, exclusively for PS Premium members.