Microplastics in Beaufort N.C.
There are some things in the world that you love so much that you don’t want to share them with anyone. Maybe it’s your new favorite singer you keep playing on repeat or your great-grandmother’s cheesecake recipe. For me, it’s the incredible little town of Beaufort, NC. If you’ve glanced at the TB&C blog, you’ll know that it holds a special place in Betsy Bertram’s heart as well. Unlike Betsy’s kite-surfing adventures, what brought me to Beaufort was a semester-long research intensive at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences right down the street in Morehead City. The biggest requirement of the program was fulfilling an independent research project. I knew I wanted to find a project that would incorporate my passion for preserving the environment while still having a direct human application. My mentor and I found the perfect project for me: searching for microplastics.
While the term may sound familiar, there are technically two forms of microplastics: primary and secondary. Think of primary microplastics as intentional; they’re the little beads in toothpastes and face-washes that President Obama banned in 2015. Secondary microplastics can be thought of as accidental, like when plastic bottles break down over time or the microfibers that shed from synthetic clothing when you wash them.
I went into the project expecting to find those primary microplastics, and to find them in residential areas where the water wasn’t moving much. The Beaufort area has plenty of water-front housing on the sound-side with small bays in between homes, and I thought this would be the prime location for the little beads from a neighbor’s toothpaste. What I found was the total opposite. Microplastics were everywhere, from the meandering nature reserve to a shallow, oyster-filled marsh. There were a great deal of them in the residential areas, like I expected, but there were also quite a few in a run-off pond next to a grocery store parking lot.
The most surprising part of it all was that I didn’t find a single plastic bead: all of the microplastics were secondary. You know, the little fibers that had come from washing polyester clothing. Water treatment facilities don’t have the capacity to filter out all these microscopic particles, so every wash of synthetic fabrics leads to these fibers ending up in our waterways. These may seem inconsequential; you can’t see the fibers with the naked eye and they’re not cutting your feet as you wade into the water. They are, however, potentially harming the wildlife that keep these ecosystems so beautiful. Some of your favorite seafood, like oysters and clams, suck them up when they feed; other delicacies like fish and shrimp gobble them up as they float through the water column. Scientists at the University of Exeter are looking at how dangerous chemicals adhere to plastics and then affect the organisms that eat them. Some of their work has shown that it can even kill the animal before it ever reaches adulthood.
Finding all of these harmful fibers in such a beautiful, pristine location was surprising, and means that there are likely a great deal more in heavier populated areas. I was devastated to learn just how prevalent microplastics are, and felt compelled to do more as a steward of the environment.
Unlike my love of Beaufort, I’ve always been a bit outspoken about my love for the environment. It was what had motivated me to pursue the program, and drove my research interests of investigating microplastics. So since I finished that project in 2015, I’ve tried to keep the results in the forefront of my mind and share the most updated information with anyone else who may be interested.
Perhaps you’ve thought about or even heard of microfibers, or maybe it crossed your mind and you haven’t known what to do. Whatever the case, there are ways you can help!
First off, don’t panic and try to replace your entire wardrobe! Creating more waste isn’t a solution. Try washing your synthetic clothing less, if possible. When you do toss it in the wash, use a product that will limit the microfibers that end up going down the drain, such as the guppy bag or a washing machine filter.
Secondly, don’t buy what you don’t need. It’s really hard to care for the environment when you are a heavy consumer. Even products that are made of recycled materials or eco-friendly textiles still require production and add to the pile of stuff you already own. But when the time comes to purchase new items, invest in high quality products, preferably made with natural textiles. Think wool, vegetable fibers, and the classic cotton!
As a lover of the outdoors, it can be really heartbreaking to know that you’re directly damaging the places you treasure. But all hope is not lost! At TB&C, we’re putting our best foot forward and taking environmental impact into consideration when choosing the products we supply. And while you can do your part to minimize microfibers, the greatest influence comes from a community making changes together. So talk to your friends and keep this in mind when you go on your next shopping trip. And as always, feel free to come into the shop and talk about it more with our great team!
Want to read more about Beaufort? Explore getting off the beaten path in Beaufort on the Glass Top Counter blog.