JACKSON, Wyo. — Kirsten Kapp wants people to think about where their trash goes, even the tiny pieces the human eye can barely spot.
Wastewater treatment facilities are incapable of filtering minuscule synthetic fibers and artificial particles that go down the drain. So when someone, for instance, uses a face wash or toothpaste that contains plastic beads that are 5 millimeters or smaller, those microplastics end up in ocean and freshwater lakes and streams.
Something as simple as taking a shower or washing clothes made of polyester or nylon can affect the water where we swim, play and fish. That’s why Kapp, a member of the faculty at Central Wyoming College in Jackson, is involving her students in her microplastics research.
“It’s important to understand the life cycle of a product and to be a little bit more conscientious of what we use and how we dispose of it,” Kapp said. “Just informing a student by asking him or her to collect trash and graph it has a long-lasting effect.”
From picking up garbage left at Trail Creek Pond in Victor, Idaho, to collecting water samples from the Snake River that might contain microplastics, Kapp’s students have learned an important lesson meant to change how they purchase bath and body products and how they dispose of trash.
Opportunity of a Lifetime
Some of them have even had the opportunity to be assistants for Kapp’s extensive research project, a chance few undergraduate students get.
“When you have early experiences in scientific research there are far more opportunities you have in the future,” Central Wyoming College Director Susan Thulin said. “Not only is the experience Kirsten offers an immense benefit to the students while they’re at community college, it will also benefit them in the future.”
Kapp is still in the midst of the project she started last October, when she and research assistant Greg Van Gilder accumulated samples of water from the Snake River.
“We took 19 samples between the Moose-Wilson bridge and Swan Valley last October,” Kapp said.
The process they went through to gather the samples they now are looking at with Raman spectrometry – a technique that uses a high-tech microscope to shoot a laser beam of light to identify types of plastics – included several steps.
On Oct. 16, Kapp and Van Gilder used their extensive collecting method when they launched a drift boat at the South Park Boat Ramp to collect five samples.
The sun was beating down as the boat floated from the launch ramp to Astoria Hot Springs. As beads of sweat dripped down Kapp’s and Van Gilder’s faces, the two were careful to not let anything contaminate the samples they gathered.
After anchoring the boat they attached a 100-micrometer net to a wooden beam that went off the side of the boat.
“The board is there so the water coming off the boat doesn’t contaminate the sample, and so the net is right in the current,” Kapp said.
It’s a Challenge
The science educator and her student anchored the boat several times that day. Sometimes they were unable to properly anchor and had to wade in to get a sample that was filtered through the net, rinsed with distilled water and placed in a clean jar.
“As long as the current is not too strong I can wade out and get a current to the side,” Kapp said. “Sometimes knowing how to collect samples can be challenging, especially because not many people have looked at rivers of this type.”
Most microplastics research is gathered from ocean water tests. In fact, few studies of freshwater have occurred in the U.S.
Researchers just started looking for microplastics in freshwater systems. A 2015 scientific journal article, “Microplastics in Freshwater Systems: A Review of the Emerging Threats, Identification of Knowledge Gaps and Prioritisation of Research Needs,” said early investigations suggest that the presence of microplastics in freshwater is equal to what is observed in marine systems.
According to the article, “Microplastics have been found in North America in the Los Angeles Basin, the North Shore Channel of Chicago, the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.”
Snake River Is Unique
While bigger rivers in Europe have been studied, none are similar to the Snake River, which is why Kapp has fashioned a unique testing process.
Kapp said she is always seeking new ways to research important and often popular topics, which also is why she involved her students in learning about microplastics.
Kapp’s microplastics education initiative began when she started looking at the presence of microplastics in the Atlantic Ocean. At the time she was involved in a project off the coast of Maine coordinated by the Rozalia Project, which aims to protect and clean the ocean.
“When I was invited to participate in marine debris studies as a guest scientist for the Rozalia Project I jumped at the opportunity,” Kapp said. “It was from this that my involvement studying microplastics in local waters grew.”
Kapp brought several Atlantic herring back to Jackson to give her research assistants and volunteer students the chance to learn about dissection and to look for microplastics in the fishes’ digestive systems.
“Herring are filter feeders,” Kapp said. “They open their mouths and are not specifically targeting prey. They are very important forage fish for whales and other species in the Gulf of Maine.”
Kapp has taught those students that microplastics harm fish.
“You will see some pretty shocking examples of fish ingesting plastic,” Kapp said. “The most obvious would be it blocks their intestinal tract, and they starve to death.”
Microplastics also can act as an “adsorbent” that attracts toxins and other dangerous chemicals.
“You can think of it as a plastic acting as a sponge or sticky surface with a chemical,” Kapp said. “It serves as a vector for an organism that may not absorb those tissues into their system as quickly as they would when they eat plastic.”
Several scientists are worried about bioaccumulation through microplastics, which is why Kapp brought back Atlantic herring to see how often the fish are ingesting fibers or beads.
Kapp, Van Gilder and a volunteer spent Oct. 30, 2015, searching for plastics in the herrings’ systems.
They measured each fish before removing its gastrointestinal tract, which was then placed in a petri dish.
“We cut open their guts and looked at them through a microscope,” Kapp said.
Kapp and her assistants carefully examined each dish under a microscope, making sure to remove any small pieces that could possibly be microplastic.
Kapp plans to publish her Atlantic herring findings in a scientific article.
Cailen McDevitt, a former student at the Central Wyoming College, has been involved in the Atlantic herring and freshwater studies.
“It was such an amazing experience to work with her,” McDevitt said. “She made me rethink my options of what I wanted to do.”
McDevitt, who is in Washington state working toward a master’s degree in nursing, said she learned a lot from Kapp and is conscientious about the products she uses and the clothes she wears.
“It’s not just the environment that is being affected,” McDevitt said. “There is a human component to be considered. We are eating these creatures that could potentially be accumulating toxins. It’s not only an environmental issue, but it is something that applies to health.”