New Report: 100% of tested Colorado water bodies contain microplastics

DENVER: 100% of tested water bodies along Colorado’s Front Range contained tiny pieces of plastic according to a new report by Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center and CoPIRG Foundation. Denver area high school and university students volunteered to collect and analyze water samples from the sixteen sites ranging from mountain creeks to urban waterways in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs.

“Colorado is known as a beautiful state with a pristine, natural environment, so it’s disappointing to find microplastics in all the waterways we sampled,” said Lexi Kilbane, Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center’s Microplastics Project Manager, a graduate student at the University of Denver and co-author of the new report, “Small pieces of plastic are mistaken as food by wildlife and can cause injury or even death. Plus, they can attract toxins in our environment and are small enough to get into our bodies via food, water or even the air. As a headwater state, we need to reduce the amount of plastic that flows out of our borders and protect our wildlife and ecosystems here in Colorado.”

“Whether it’s plastic bags flapping in the trees or pieces of polystyrene containers and plastic straws lodged in the grasses along our waterways, this report underscores we have a plastic pollution problem in Colorado,” said Danny Katz, CoPIRG Foundation executive director and co-author of the report. “The good news is Colorado legislators acted last year and new laws will kick into place in January to eliminate some of the worst plastics that are used once and then pollute our communities for centuries. Given how prevalent microplastics are, we’ll need to take additional actions to phase-out other problem plastics.”

The water samples were collected between February and April of 2023. The groups tested water gathered from creeks, rivers, reservoirs and lakes from Canon City and Colorado Springs up through Denver and Boulder. Each site included four water samples. The volunteer team, including a University of Denver graduate student and two high school students from Denver Public Schools, took photos of the areas and performed river cleanups in addition to the testing.

According to the report, microplastics come from a variety of sources including plastic bags, containers, clothing, and packaging. Plastics do not decompose like an apple core or pizza box. Instead, they break into smaller and smaller pieces until they are tiny (<5mm) microplastic.

Microplastic can be easily mistaken as food by wildlife, leading to internal lacerations and digestive problems including starvation. Plastic and the chemicals it contains or attracts in the environment, when ingested by humans, can cause endocrine disruption, hormonal effects, and reproductive disorders.

Humans produce so much plastic that it’s estimated there will be more pieces of plastics than fish in the sea at current rates. As a headwater state, Colorado not only contributes to plastic pollution in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but also contamination in our communities. Therefore, reducing plastic pollution in Colorado can impact a much larger area than just the state.

The report recommends Colorado not only implement bans on single-use plastic bags and polystyrene cups and containers, which is scheduled to kick in January 1, 2024, but to take additional action targeting plastics in clothing and additional packaging.

The full report can be found at here.