NRM Students Study Microplastics in Local Waterways

Caitlin McCarthy is studying microplastics for her final project for Environmental Science
Caitlin McCarthy is studying microplastics for her final project for Environmental Science
Caitlin McCarthy is studying microplastics in local waterways for her final project in Environmental Science.

From Microplastics to Land Management: How one NRM student is bridging the gap between final exams and a forestry career

Inspired by a lab assignment in which she and her classmates discovered microplastics embedded in snowmelt samples, Caitlin McCarthy decided to use her final project for Environmental Science to dig deeper into the issue.

“I suppose that’s what got us thinking about microplastics in our local environment,” says Caitlin, 24-year-old Natural Resource Management student at Colorado Mountain College Leadville, “We decided to study this topic because it is a relatively new concept that intrigued us all. Microplastics are in the snow we ski in, in the water we drink, and in the air we breathe. It’s really fascinating, and we are just only just breaking the surface.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, microplastics are very small pieces of plastic that pollute the environment. Microplastics are not a specific kind of plastic, but rather any plastic fragment that is less than 5 mm in length.

Water samples collected for Environmental Science final project studying microplastics
Water samples collected for an Environmental Science final project studying microplastics. PC: Caitlin McCarthy

“I knew that I wanted to perform some sort of a study on local water systems,” says Caitlin, “to prove that microplastics are, in fact, present in our local waterways.”

After brainstorming with Dr. Katy Warner, Natural Resource Management Program Director, Caitlin became increasingly curious about industrial water treatment facilities contribution to microplastics. Specifically, she wondered if industrial water treatment creates more plastic from natural wear-and-tear on equipment during the filtration process.

It is a plausible hypothesis, Caitlin believes, as “it seems as though contamination increases with every further human interaction”.

Though she is originally from Northampton, MA, Caitlin has lived in Salida, CO for the last three years, working as a trail crew leader for various non-profit organizations.

In addition to her work in Chaffee County, Caitlin was also selected for the Rocky Mountain Land Management Internship (RMLMI) program. This two-year paid internship program allows students to work side-by-side with CMC faculty and U.S. Forest Service rangers while earning a degree in Sustainability Studies or Natural Resource Management.

“The RMLMI is an amazing opportunity,” says Caitlin, “I will be working full time for the White River National Forest, USFS in between school sessions over the next two years as I complete the NRM program.”

The program is designed to offer a direct pathway from CMC to a career in public lands stewardship with the U.S. Forest Service.

But before she can call herself a federal employee, Caitlin and her peers will present their results on microplastics in local waterways for their final project in Environmental Science.

“I hope to develop a simple methodology for microplastic quantification that can be easily replicated by other students and civilian scientists,” says Caitlin, who anticipates graduating in spring 2020, “I hope to engage my peers and community in this topic and draw light to the extent in which plastics are everywhere we turn.”

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