LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Many of us try to be good environmental citizens and recycle plastic bottles or give up plastic grocery bags altogether. Bottles and bags, though, are just part of the problem. Floating in our oceans are microplastics, tiny bits, less than 5 millimeters in diameter. Hundreds of citizen scientists around the world are helping experts assess the threat posed by microplastics. Reporter Galen Koch sent us this audio postcard about the effort.
GALEN KOCH, BYLINE: Teresa Carey and her husband live a nomadic life on their sailboat. Today, they're moored in Rockland Harbor, Maine, where Teresa is taking water samples from her dingy.
TERESA CAREY: And then to collect the sample, we just submerge it under and let it fill.
KOCH: Teresa holds the jar of clear ocean water up to the sun.
CAREY: So there's a lot of plastic in there. You can't see it, but we know it's there.
KOCH: She'll send this sample just a few hours up the coast to Abby Barrows' lab in Stonington, Maine. Abby is the partner scientist on the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation's microplastics program. Her lab is sparse. There's hardly any furniture, but there is a giant stack of boxes. These boxes come from volunteer adventurers. Kayakers, sailors, and scuba divers send the packages, wrapped tightly in layers and layers of packing tape.
ABBY BARROWS: Sometimes adventurers are extremely ambitious with how they wrap up a box and it takes me 10 minutes to get into the sample.
KOCH: Abby pulls out glass, metal and plastic water bottles. Water comes from the Arctic, remote areas of the Pacific, really from all over the world. And its Abby's job to filter each sample.
BARROWS: So a pretty simple setup here. We have a lot of glassware that's hooked up to a vacuum pump filtration system.
KOCH: She's looking for tiny bits of plastic that get caught on the .45 micron filter.
BARROWS: So really, really fine mesh, basically not allowing very much to pass through other than water.
KOCH: Abby counts the plastic bits under a microscope.
BARROWS: I hear something as well...
KOCH: I notice a glass dish with a really dirty filter. It's from a sample taken 100 miles off the Canary Islands. On the filter, there are about 1,900 pieces of plastic.
Can I look at what that looks like?
BARROWS: Uh huh, this one's crazy. I mean, blow...
KOCH: There's a big thing.
BARROWS: ...Blow your mind.
KOCH: The filter is full of tiny blue and hot pink squiggles. These are mostly microfibers from things like synthetic clothing and fishing rope. Nineteen-hundred is a high number, but it's not unusual for Abby to find plastic in the water.
BARROWS: So we've processed 798 samples and, of those samples, 751 of them have contained plastic.
KOCH: That's 94 percent of the samples. And all that plastic is here to stay. It doesn't go away. It just gets smaller and smaller. In the coming year, Abby hopes to publish results on the microplastics project's findings. But for now the project's major success is in raising awareness among its many volunteers.
BARROWS: They are contributing to a project and getting real results. And so I think that the education piece is the most valuable component of having all these different people involved because they can be, like, I went to this beautiful place, took a sample of water, had such a great time. I got the sample back, and it had 20 pieces of plastic in it. Wow.
KOCH: Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there. For NPR News, I'm Galen Koch in Stonington, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.