In nearly every direction she looks, all Julie Hotz can see are mountains.
Here, atop Idaho’s 6,727-foot Lookout Mountain, Hotz and her hiking partner are 300 miles into their 1,200-mile bid at the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail. They have just covered nine miles of rugged off-trail terrain and have another 40 to go on trails before they reach their next resupply at Metaline Falls, Washington.
After spending a day and a half bushwhacking, she takes a quick picture of the historic 1929 fire lookout and sits down for a lunch overlooking the mountain’s east face. A thousand feet down, Lucky Creek trickles from its headwaters in a small pond, falling another 3,000 feet through fir, spruce, larch, and white pine forest to the blue 19-mile stretch of Lower Priest Lake.
Hotz has earned every mile of this journey: To get here, she bicycled from her apartment in Los Angeles across the desert to Flagstaff, Arizona, and then rode north through the Rocky Mountains to Glacier National Park. From there, she began her hike.
With her eyes, she traces the creek’s jagged path through piles of boulders choked with deadfall, brush, huckleberry bushes, and dense trees, thinking first about the imposing bushwhack descent ahead, and then about the water itself.
As she travels, Hotz is gathering water samples for the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation Microplastics Project, in which volunteer hikers, boaters, and others are helping study the sources, composition, and distribution of microplastics pollution in waters worldwide.
“I’ve known about the Pacific Gyre for years, and it’s frightening,” Hotz said, referring to one of five major ocean gyres where ocean currents gather massive areas of man-made debris and garbage. “Last year [I learned about] microbeads in the Great Lakes, and how pervasive microplastic pollution is in freshwater, too, and I was floored.”
Microplastics have a number of sources, among them microbeads manufactured for cosmetics, household cleaners, and laundry detergents. Microbeads have recently gained some attention in both press and legislation, but there is another little-known and invisible source of these plastics: synthetic clothing. Each time you wash your fleece jacket, for example, it can shed up to 1,900 fibers. Those fibers pass right through a washing machine filter, through the water treatment filters, and directly enter the waterways.
The ASC Microplastics Project has found contamination in the vast majority of marine samples it’s analyzed from oceans worldwide over the past 2.5 years, and this spring ASC began researching freshwater, mobilizing adventurers like Hotz who can access remote locations.
To date, most other freshwater studies have been limited, focused on areas near population centers, according to ASC Executive Director Gregg Treinish, noting that a crucial part in understanding how the plastics enter the waterways is knowing the extent and types of the pollution.
“Is it also present in the more remote streams and lakes? If so, how is it getting there?” asks Treinish, whose organization aims to compile a comprehensive data set on microplastics and use that data to inform a reduction in microplastics pollution at its source.
“Now is the time to learn more about this emerging pollutant,” Treinish added. “We know so little about the distribution and long-term effects of microplastics on ecosystem health.”
Since ASC’s freshwater project launched this spring, adventurers have sampled in far-flung places, including the Julian Alps in Slovenia, Bruce Peninsula National Park, and an alpine lake 17 miles from the nearest road in the Washington Cascades, all of which contained microplastics. Other samples from below the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska, the Upper Mississippi River, Minnesota, and Baños, Ecuador, have yet to be analyzed.
“I pass these tiny little trickles, and I wonder how many of them have plastic in them,” Hotz said later via cell phone from North Fork, Washington.
Hotz has sampled the Virgin River near Zion National Park—that sample contained four pieces of microplastics—Idaho’s Kootenai and Pend Oreille rivers, and the Columbia in eastern Washington. While she hopes the most remote water she’s seen doesn’t contain plastic, she’s also happy to have found a way to contribute.
“One of the cool things about [this project] is that it’s really hands on… I can try to live a low-impact life and try to buy local things and use sustainable practices, but beyond that, beyond my personal footprint, a lot of times I feel really helpless,” Hotz said.
“This is a way I can be involved, and the more I get involved, the more informed I become and the more I want to help.”
In addition to gathering samples, Julie Hotz is shooting to raise $2 for ASC for each of the 3,350 miles she bikes and hikes—that’s $6,700! Follow along and give at juliehotz.com/about-bike-hike/ before she reaches the Pacific Ocean.
You can learn more about the ASC Microplastics Project and sign up at adventurescience.org/microplastics.