Biologist says residents can help keep waterways free of microplastics

Western Carolina University students attending Jason Love's research and biology course regularly take samples out of local creeks, streams, and rivers and examine them for evidence of microplastic contamination.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Jason Love, along with interns and Western Carolina University students, examine minute particles of microplastics collected from local waterways.

At the March 13, 7 p.m. meeting of the Nantahala Hiking Club, Jason Love, the new associate director of Highlands Biological Station, presented “The New Pollution: Microplastics in the Little Tennessee River and Its Tributaries.” The meeting marked, at least temporarily, one of the last gatherings at the Macon County Public Library due to President Donald Trump declaring the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency. Yet, Love explained that now may be as important a time as ever to make certain we keep our area creeks, streams, and rivers free of plastic contaminants to ensure not only clean drinking water, but ultimately a healthy food source, since not only fish thrive in local waterways, but farm animals drink from them. 

Prior to his new appointment, Love was the site manager for the Coweeta Long-Term Ecological Research program, based at Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in Otto. At Coweeta, he coordinated and assisted with research with U.S. Forest Service scientists, the University of Georgia, and multiple universities and colleges. Plus, he directed the Schoolyard LTER program, which provided field research experiences for local schools. One research focus, begun in 2018, involved the effects of microplastics in local waterways. 

“Since the 1950s, plastics have become an increasingly important and pervasive part of our everyday lives,” Love pointed out. “However, the attributes that make plastics useful – they are durable, long-lasting, and cheap to produce – are the same factors that cause them to be persistent, major sources of pollution. Microplastics are those plastics that are <0.5 cm. in length and include fibers from our synthetic clothes, fragments of plastic grocery bags, and microbeads from hand soap.” Plastic water bottles and other containers are also culprits.

He and a group of interns studied the intake of microplastics by fresh water mussels, which are filter feeders. “They are kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” he explained. Research determined that microplastics are “quite abundant” in the Little Tennessee and “in Cartoogechaye Creek by the old rec Park downstream of Ingles.” 

Findings, which are ongoing through a class Love teaches at Western Carolina University, have determined, “We need to be doing a better job protecting our waterways,” he said. 

Love’s suggestions include: 

– Recycle

– Do not throw trash on roadways – and especially in streams as “some plastics are carcinogenic and not only is litter unsightly but it is leaking ave trash in the back of a truck as it typically blows out when the vehicle is in motion

– Avoid using disposable plastics; instead, fill reusable bottles with water and other liquids 

– Periodically walk along roadways and streams near home and pick up trash – make it a family affair

“We don’t know the full consequences of what microplastics are doing to our environment and to us,” said Love. “We don’t know our threshold.” 

He added, “Just be a conscientious consumer – now, and always.”