Willistown Conservation Trust Finds Microplastics in the Headwaters of the Ridley, Crum, and Darby Creeks

Zack SmithWatershed Protection Program Co-Op Zack Smith collects and analyzes water samples using plastic-free processing. (Submitted Image)
New data shows microplastic pollution in some of Chester County's most protected waterways

NEWTOWN SQUARE, PA — The Watershed Protection Program at Willistown Conservation Trust is unveiling new data about the presence of microplastics within the Ridley, Crum, and Darby Creek watersheds, underscoring the need to slow their harmful spread by documenting microplastic pollution in local streams and enacting land protection measures.

Led by Watershed Protection Program Co-Op Zack Smith of Drexel University, during the month of April of this past year, Willistown Conservation Trust Co-Ops and staff used glass sampling jars and plastic-free processing to gather 76 samples from the Ridley, Crum, and Darby Creeks within the Trust’s 28,000-acre focus area in Chester County. Of these samples, 100% contained the presence of microplastic pollution.

Microplastics — pieces of plastic that are less than 5 millimeters in diameter — spread widely within the air and water due to their small size. Emerging research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that microplastic particles can attract toxic chemical contaminants in the environment like PCBs and DDT, which are linked to cancer and hormonal disruption in birds, fish, and humans. While this form of plastic pollution has been documented in oceans, the atmosphere, and urban rivers, “very little has been done to document microplastic pollution in small streams like ours, so this data is a new insight into the prevalence of microplastics right where we live,” explains Zack Smith.

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Lauren McGrath, Director of the Watershed Protection Program at the Trust, believes that water waste is where much of the microplastic pollution they’ve found originates. Microplastics are formed when larger plastics break down, including plastic packaging and synthetic clothing, ultimately entering our waterways. This means the average person swallows a credit card’s worth of plastic every week.

Reducing our microplastic footprint is no small feat, but protections and regulations, such as land protection and monitoring, can help on a large scale. Conserving land reduces runoff from storm events, which slows the rate of plastic pollution entering water bodies. “Land conservation and water protection have always been a priority for our organization, but now we recognize them as a crucial necessity upon which our water health and the health of our neighbors depend,” says Willistown Conservation Trust Executive Director Kate Etherington.

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“There is no silver bullet solution for microplastics,” says Stephanie Wein, Clean Water & Conservation Advocate for PennEnvironment, “but fundamentally, we need to cut plastic pollution off at the source and change the way society deals with our waste. When we continue to increase the amount of plastic waste we generate, even well-protected headwater streams like these aren’t safe.”

At home, some of the easiest ways to reduce your plastic footprint are to choose plastic-free alternatives, add microplastic filters to your washing machines, and make sure that all items are getting used to their maximum potential. If we can decrease the plastic leaving our homes, local water treatment plants will discharge less into our local waters.

Thanks to a recent grant received from the William Penn Foundation, the Watershed Protection Program at Willistown Conservation Trust will be able to continue its work of protecting the Ridley, Darby, and Crum Creek watersheds, while monitoring and researching microplastics and other contaminants found within these waters.

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