By Dylan Jones, ASC Microplastics Adventurer
The morning sun dances off the glassy ripples lapping against my kayak. I dip a sampling bottle under the crystalline surface one, two, three times, the displaced bubbles rising as I rinse it with seawater. I gaze at the vibrant reef meters below the turquoise waters of Thailand’s Andaman Sea.
Tightening the foil-lined cap, I look around. A hundred yards to the west, a white-sand beach is framed by the towering limestone cliffs of Koh Lao Liang Nong, or “little brother island.” Across the blue expanse to the east, the 3,500-foot peaks of the Nakhon Si Thammarat Range rise above the coast.
Our time on the Lao Liang Islands wrapped up a nine-week climbing trip through Southeast Asia, where I added purpose to my trip by collecting water samples for the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation Microplastics Project, an ongoing study to catalogue the extent of plastic pollution in the planet’s water supply. While collecting data for the ASC Pika Project in the U.S., I discovered the importance of adventure science and the joy it brings to my time outside. When I decided to join seven friends on this climbing pilgrimage, I knew my first steps overseas would be taken in the name of conservation.
Staggering Amount of Refuse
When we landed in Bangkok on January 5, I was overwhelmed. Population eight million, the Thai capital is both revered and despised for its indulgent street life and stifling pollution. One day perusing the markets was enough to see the staggering amount of refuse overflowing the streets into the canals—a sight that continued throughout our journey.
First, we traveled north by train to the ancient city of Chiang Mai for a taste of Thai climbing at Crazy Horse Buttress. Also during our stay there, we rafted a steep, rocky stretch of the Mae Taeng River, one of several that originate in the mountainous heart of Chiang Mai Province. All of the region’s rivers converge to form the Ping River, which flows into the Chao Phraya; translated as “river of kings,” this watercourse bisects Bangkok on its way to the Gulf of Thailand.
Salt or No Salt?
At the time of our trip, ASC was focused on sampling coastal waters, though now the organization is also collecting freshwater samples. It would be weeks until I capped my first one-liter sample, yet microplastics swirled around my mind like the North Pacific Gyre.
High up in the Thanon Thong Chai Range, plastic debris accompanied us on the Mae Taeng as we floated through thick jungle alongside the open bamboo huts of the hill tribes. This debris will flow into the Ping, then the Chao Phraya, and finally into the Gulf of Thailand—perhaps even ending up in my samples.
Megadangers of Microplastics
Microplastics—petroleum-based particles less than five millimeters in size pose a serious environmental problem in aquatic ecosystems. The small but deadly particles come in two flavors: Primary microplastics are manufactured for direct use, such as threads in nylon clothing or beads in cosmetic products; secondary microplastics are derived from the breakdown of larger plastic debris over time. Toxins such as DDT and BPA adhere to the particles and accumulate up the food chain through a process called biomagnification.
This was on my mind weeks later when we ate fresh fish on the banks of the Mekong River in Thakhek, Laos. As the Laotian fisherman skewered his catch with bamboo shoots and tossed it on hot coals, another tourist assured us that, due to the lack of upstream industrial activity, the fish were clean. But was he aware of the omnipresence of microplastics? The vast majority of samples in this study—over 90 percent—have tested positive. Would he be able to guarantee the lack of toxin-laden particles in the chocolate-brown Mekong and, better yet, my dinner?
We returned to Thailand with fresh visas and traveled south to the coastal provinces of the Malay Peninsula. The karst topography of the Tenasserim Hills is astounding: endless limestone towers dot the region, forming a skyline resembling an economic graph. Its rise and run reveal the geologic history of boom and bust as an ancient ocean accumulated organic remains and dried up millions of years ago.
From the Gulf of Thailand we boarded a ferry to Ko Tao, the northernmost island in the Chumphon Archipelago. Although the paradisiacal volcanic remnant is known for its diving and granite rock climbing, my excitement was focused on water samples. I waded chest-deep from a pile of rounded boulders into Sairee Bay at sunset, following protocol. I made note of the time, wind speed, and water temperature and took a GPS reading.
Returning to terra firma, I considered the systemic quandary Southeast Asia faces with waste disposal. The ubiquity of the plastic bottle is exacerbated by the lack of clean drinking water, as plumbing systems are used primarily for cleaning and sanitation. Without municipal waste services, refuse enters watersheds and eventually washes up in Thailand’s seemingly pristine coastline or floats to ocean environs further afar.
Spreading More Than Pollutants
As I collected my final sample from Koh Lao Liang Nong’s calm bay, the gentle rocking of my kayak echoed the ebb and flow of my thoughts. I pondered the impact my samples might have on microplastics at the macro level. Individually, my contributions won’t clean up the oceans. But the act of sampling and raising awareness can spread like the very particles ASC is working to understand.
My words collect like runoff and flow into a rivulet, informing those near me, who become conscious of their plastic usage. As behaviors change, the ideological tributaries converge and flow into the collective conscious of the human ocean. And with a critical mass of samples, ASC will have information with which they can effect change on a larger scale.
Glimmer of Good News
Since returning home, analysis of my samples resulted in a total of 13 microplastics counted at an average of 4 pieces per liter. There was some good news, however: The sample collected off the Lao Liang Islands was free of microplastics.
I felt a relieving peace as I recalled the abundance of marine life thriving among the islands’ healthy reefs. In a world where the heavy impact of Homo sapiens is far spread, it’s comforting to know there are still places that are unharmed.
ASC volunteer Dylan Jones became passionate about conservation as a youngster exploring the lush Appalachian forests of West Virginia. He is a rock-climbing guide and freelance writer who holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in journalism, both from West Virginia University.