It’s the Little Things . . .

Citizen scientists collect Bay water samples for worldwide microplastics studies.

When Jordan Snyder and Martina Sestakova consider cruising destinations for their 31-foot Pearson, Base Camp, tranquil gunkholes and stretches where they can sail into the sunset aren’t always at the top of their list. Instead, they opt for spots where they can dip their water bottles into the Bay and fish out samples to be studied for plastic content. They’re in search not of what they can see, but what’s practically invisible: microplastics. These minute pieces of plastic, measuring less than five millimeters, have permeated the expanses of the world’s oceans, and have likely made their way into the Chesapeake as well. 

Citizen scientists Snyder and Sestakova hope to do their part in finding out if that’s true. The pair works with a group called Adventure Scientists, an organization that facilitates environmental data collection and study, whose goal is to revolutionize the way we view and use plastics, as well as to enhance the lives of all who live, work and play on (or in) the Bay and waters worldwide.

Snyder, a Cisco Systems network engineer who also runs Base Camp Sailing, a charter sailing business, grew up on the Bay. From learning to sail with his father to climbing High Island on the Rhode River, it seems his future was meant to be intertwined with the Chesapeake’s. Sestakova, a textile designer and small business owner, entered the scene with zero sailing experience but upon teaming up with Snyder immediately fell in love with the Bay. Sampling for microplastics while working with Adventure Scientists quickly became the icing on the cake. Snyder notes that although there’s been a lot of talk about microplastics, which stem from beauty products, synthetic fibers like fleece and nylon clothing, and the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic, neither scientists nor regular Joes are yet sure of their impact. Enter the Adventure Scientists.

Headquartered in Bozeman, Montana, the non-profit organization recruits, trains and manages volunteers from around the world, who collect water samples and get them into the hands of partner scientists for analysis. Adventure Scientists marketing manager, Victoria Ortiz, says because this is a global effort, online is the name of the game. Volunteers apply through the organization’s website and take part in “extensive training depending on the project,” which often includes YouTube videos and other creative solutions to teach the requisite collection methods and protocol. 

In the case of the microplastics project, samples make their way to principal investigator Abby Barrows, in Stonington, Maine. Ortiz says the organization, to date, has received approximately 2,500 samples. Of these, 22 samples hail from the Chesapeake Bay, 13 of which are from Snyder and Sestakova’s efforts. The team plucked most of its samples from the middle Bay, with a small number from the Atlantic. The data reveal that some of the samples from the Chesapeake had higher concentrations of microplastics than those from the ocean. Ortiz reports that just over 90 percent of the Chesapeake Bay samples contained microplastics with concentrations ranging from 0 to 32 plastics particles per liter. “All of the microplastics [from the Bay] were tiny microfibers like the kind that come off in the wash when washing fleece,” she says. It seems that microplastics can be added to the list of land-based pollutants, such as agricultural runoff, that commonly threaten the Bay. 

“Nearly 90 percent of global marine samples have microplastics, which is pretty stunning, considering that a lot of them are collected in remote areas,” says Ortiz. Despite the startling data, she thinks projects like this are invaluable in terms of determining both the degree of and mechanisms behind the reach of the plastics. “This project has been pretty incredible as far as mapping the breadth, the spread and the proliferation of microplastics all over the world.” Ortiz says that, “it wouldn’t be possible without this kind of organization (Adventure Scientists) that can obtain data at such a scale because of adventurers like Jordan.”

For Snyder and Sestakova, participating as volunteers has been an easy choice. “I’d go do a destination and do the typical sailing thing, but now we have a purpose. It gives us another reason to be out there,” says Snyder. 

“You start with this idea that ‘I don’t know that I can help,” explains Sestakova. “But the protocol is so simple, you read through it, you know how to collect the sample, and then the collection of the sample itself is just part of the leisurely activity. This is literally a three- to five-minute activity anywhere you are.” For Sestakova, sampling helps her to connect with her surroundings on the Bay. What’s more, it seems that she and Snyder are encouraged to be part of a global team with a shared mission. “It’s starting to build a whole new community where people can connect over simple acts of protecting the environment,” she explains.

For Adventure Scientists and its volunteers, data collection is the down-and-dirty work, but raising awareness to make changes to policy and everyday lives is the end-game. “It’s great that a lot of people know about microplastics now, but what we want to see are changes. We want to see individual actions that people are reducing the amount of single-use plastic they’re using,” says Ortiz. She notes that Adventure Scientists has been able to educate, through various channels, nearly 85 million people about the proliferation of microplastics in the water. The group is working with partners like Clif Bar and Patagonia to help “figure out how to make their processing and supply chain and packaging more sustainable,” Ortiz says, “the bullseye is to change policy.” 

Team Base Camp knows that people are a lot less likely to get worked up about the threat posed by virtually invisible microplastics than the harm caused by the visible trash floating in the Bay. But until the data roll in and the risks to ocean and human life are known, there’s much that can be done to reduce the amount of microplastics in the Chesapeake and around the world. For Snyder and Sestakova, it’s all about making minor tweaks to daily habits. Snyder says, with a chuckle, “If a restaurant server places a straw on the table, we just say ‘no thanks’.” In addition to giving straws the big NO, discontinuing or at least minimizing the use of plastic bags, beauty products containing microbeads, and single-use water bottles helps the effort. “What matters to me in all of this,” Sestakova says, “is that I can make very, very small changes to my lifestyle that I think can make a difference overall but that really don’t change my life.” 

In the end, “adding purpose to adventure,” as the pair of citizen scientists says, is a simple, worthwhile way to get the data while getting their boating kicks.

—Laura Boycourt