An Inconvenient Truth from Gregg Treinish: "90 Percent of Every Liter of Water on Earth Has Plastic In It"

Gregg Treinish, the 35-year-old founder of Adventure Scientists (ASC) has been busy since we named him one of the 50 Most Adventurous Men in 2015. Last year, Treinish went to Uganda to visit with mountain gorillas for Conservation Through Public Health, which is working to prevent human diseases from being transmitted to the dwindling population of the endangered primates. In April, he was named a finalist for the latest TED Fellowship. This year, Treinish is gearing up for the birth of his first child, due in June, and has been maintaining focus on a serious, yet poorly understood, threat to the global environment: marine and freshwater micro-plastic pollution. Over the past four years, trained volunteers have collected over 2,400 water samples from around the world and delivered them to ASC, which tested them for the presence of micro-plastics. The group found minute plastic particles and fibers in 74 percent of those samples, including 86 percent of the marine samples. We recently caught up with Treinish to talk about the prevalence of plastic in wild places.

Were you surprised at how far micro-plastics have spread into the environment?

I was shocked. I would never have guessed that almost 90 percent of every liter of water on the surface of the Earth has plastics in it — including a recent one that we found in glacial meltwater that had never been visited before.

Now we’ve wound down field collections. June 1 is the last day people can submit samples. We're moving now to making sure that we are sharing the data as far and wide as we can, that we are leveraging those data to really have as much impact as possible.

Over 80 percent of the micro-plastic pollution in your samples were tiny fibers, probably from textiles. Does that put the outdoor clothing industry, which relies heavily on synthetic fibers, in a touchy spot?

I think that the entire outdoor industry was surprised to learn that there might be this outcome from washing our fleece jackets and synthetic clothing in general. We need corporations investing money into new and better products that are going to be less harmful, helping the world to understand that front-loading washing machines are better than top-loaders, that newer and more quality fabrics are better than the cheaper stuff.

Have you made any personal changes as a result of discovering how widespread micro-plastics have become?

I don't eat seafood anymore, because I've learned how ubiquitous this is, and that it's a petroleum-based product and source of toxics. I don't want to spend the next 50 years eating marine life only to realize that it's a source of cancer and Alzheimer's and other kinds of diseases.

Maybe that is overly cautious of me, but people thought smoking was just fine 50 years ago.

I've also put a filtration system on my washing machine, the Filtrol 160. It only filters down to 160 microns, but I filled two Ball jars over the last seven or eight months with the crap that comes out of my washing machine. It would have gone straight into the waterway and made its way through wastewater treatment, because so many of the plastics are too small to be picked up by wastewater treatment, and then out into the ocean.

I’ve always been pretty adamant about not using single-serving plastics in particular, and I’ve just become a little more hard-line on that. Now I certainly make exceptions — I'm not claiming to be a purist in that sense. And, I'll say frankly, anybody who tries to go single-serving plastic free in our society, it's nearly impossible.

How do you know?

I've been 28 days into a challenge to go a month without plastics. The rule is basically anything you're not going to use for a year or more, you can't buy for a month. But at the airport, I ordered a cup of coffee, and because I have my own cup with me somebody is going to take a lid and throw it into the garbage because that's how they do inventory. That plastic was used because of me. The next time you go to the grocery store, try to buy no plastic. It's really freaking challenging.

Without plastics I wouldn't have a computer. Certainly without plastics the medical industry would not survive and thrive. My car, everything I have, has plastic on it — but it's the individual single-serving plastics that I feel like we can have the biggest improvement on.

Why did it make sense to put four years worth of ACS effort into gathering data on micro-plastics?

I am almost uniquely focused on identifying and vetting those issues where data can truly be a game changer, where it can tip the scales for getting closer to solutions to these issues. I want every single hour that somebody spends in the field for us to be about impact. And so we ask ourselves all the time: Is more data really beneficial here?

We’ve collected the largest data set on Earth about micro-plastics, and business partners like Patagonia and Sun Skis sunglasses and Clif Bar are using it to change their products and the way they're doing business. We're moving to now making sure that we are sharing the data as far and wide as we can, and that we are leveraging those data to really have as much impact as possible.