Five years ago, when marine research scientist Abby Bowers looked through her microscope at a local water sample, she saw a bunch of multicolored pieces of plastic.
These strands of plastic were less than 5 millimeters in length — smaller than the average sesame seed — and were what scientists call “microplastics.”
“Seeing all these technicolored pieces of plastic led me to think of all these larger questions,” says Abby. “How is it affecting the ocean? Our drinking water? Are microplastics everywhere?”
She knew she needed to look at a lot more water samples from around the world to answer these questions. However, in order to get access to those samples, she’d need some help.
That’s why Abby partnered with Adventure Scientists.
This non-profit organization unites scientists with non-scientists — explorers, adventurers, athletes and others willing to help — so they can tackle some of the world’s most important environmental issues together.
Adventure Scientists enlists and trains people from all walks of life to collect samples — such as water samples — for scientists around the world. And sometimes they go to some pretty remote and difficult-to-reach places to get those samples.
“I was able to get water samples from the Antarctic and the middle of the Pacific,” says Abby.
And that’s not all. Adventure Scientists explorers collected thousands of water samples for her from all seven continents, allowing her to compile the most extensive dataset on microplastic pollution in the world.
Unfortunately, the results revealed some grim news about the magnitude of this problem: 74% of the samples collected contained microplastics.
“Microplastics are one of the largest pollution problems you’ve never seen,” says Abby.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, microplastics generally come from one of two places: either larger pieces of plastic that degrade into smaller fibers over time or from microbeads — tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are common exfoliants found in health and beauty products.
These microbeads were so prevalent that one study estimated that 808 trillion of them were washed down drains in American homes every day. And because they’re so small, it’s easy for them to pass through water filtration systems and end up in the oceans or great lakes. Even on land, rain and runoff can seep them into groundwater, water streams, and local water sources like the one where Abby had collected her original water sample.
In addition, microplastics can easily be ingested by all sorts of creatures — including plankton — and work their way up the food chain all the way to humans.
By revealing how prevalent these microplastics are in the world’s water sources, Abby’s showing just how serious the ecological and human implications could be.
But there is some good news that comes from understanding the scope of the problem: it can motivate people to act.
On December 28th, 2015, President Obama signed the Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015, which banned companies from using those harmful plastic microbeads in personal care products. It was a notable, nationwide first step in working towards reducing the prevalence of microplastics in our waterways.
That’s why nonprofits like Adventure Scientists are so important to scientists like Abby.
“Without adventure scientists I would have never been able to dream about this breadth of data that I’ve been able to collect,” she explains.
And Abby’s not the only one who could benefit from their help.
“The adventure scientist model lends itself to so many different projects, whether it be microplastics or forestry conservation or animal protection,” she continues. “This is just the beginning.”
To learn more about Adventure Scientists, check out this video: