Microplastic Sample in Ulm River

A piece of a polystyrene foam cup is found next to the Missouri River at the Ulm Bridge Fishing Access Site in Ulm, MT. Photo courtesy of Skye Borden & the Environment Research & Policy Center

ULM RIVER BRIDGE – From cups, straws and grocery bags, you don’t normally have to travel far to find something made from plastic. And for environmental researchers in the Treasure State, it took a summer-long study to find pieces of the material in rivers across Montana.

In a new report, Environment Montana sampled microplastics in 33 of 50 access fishing sites across the state. With enough time, they break down from bigger-sized products into different shapes and sizes, ranging from thin strips and chip-sized fragments, to those so small, you'd need a microscope to clearly see them.

Given that fact, how do they make it to streams and different water sources? In addition to your plastic pollution from nearby communities, they can also travel through rain and snowfall depending on their size, according to Environment Montana Director Skye Borden.  

According to a new report from the group, animals like birds and fish can easily mistake microplastics for food, which may chemically affect their behaviors and metabolism, and could reach people down the line.

"Some of the chemicals in plastics can pass up through the food chain and into our bodies, but we don't have a good understanding of what the long term impact of that is," said Borden, who worked on the study.

The most recent study on microplastics came from the World Health Organization back in August. While WHO found that there wasn't enough evidence to call the material harmful to human health, they encouraged the need for more research before coming to a more solid conclusion.

While there there's no one right way to tackle microplastic pollution, Environment Montana recommended a few policies, like re-using materials whenever possible. Others included phasing out single-use plastic products, building eco-friendly infrastructure systems, encouraging agencies to make limit plastics in their purchases, and giving businesses an incentive for making successful moves away from plastic items. 

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