This story comes to KHOL through the Rocky Mountain Community Radio coalition.
There’s a lot of plastic floating around in the environment and it’s not just shopping bags flapping in tree branches. Some plastics are too small to see with the naked eye. Mountain towns make a special contribution to this pool of litter: the wax on the bottom of your skis or snowboard is made from petroleum.
That’s right, plastic.
“The reality is that just about all the ski wax in the world is made from petroleum,” said Carbondalian Peter Arlein, founder of Mountain Flow Eco-Wax. Arlein said ski wax works like a deck of cards—as you’re gliding across the powder, snow crystals are constantly pulling the bottom card off the deck, leaving a layer of wax behind on your ski tracks.
“And whatever you put on your skis or your snowboard goes directly into the snowpack and then it ends up in the local watershed,” Arlein said.
That’s exactly what the Brooksher Watershed Institute gathered scientists to discuss on a recent panel. Those plastics that are too small to see are called microplastics, and Dr. Janice Brahney researches them at Utah State University.
“In total, it’s estimated that we’ve produced about 10 billion metric tons of plastic. And each year that production increases by about 4%,” Brahney said. “Now, much of this plastic ends up in landfills or incinerated, some of it is recycled. But it’s estimated that 12 to 18% ends up in the environment as mismanaged plastic waste.”
Plastic is particularly harmful because it doesn’t break down into the components it’s made of. Brahney said microplastics form when larger plastic trash breaks into smaller and smaller pieces that become unnoticeable but pervasive in both indoor and outdoor environments.
Austin Baldwin, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Idaho Water Science Center, said the prevalence of microplastic pollution stems from many sources, including “lines from things like nets or ropes or fishing lines; beads or pellets; foams: Styrofoams, coffee cups, take-out containers; films; plastic bags or plastic wrappers; fibers from clothing and textiles, carpet, upholstery; [and] tire particles from rubber, which is used in sports fields.”
Baldwin also said contaminants get introduced to the environment through various means, like discharge from wastewater treatment plants, stormwater runoff in urban areas and atmospheric deposition. And once plastics are in watersheds, they pose a risk to aquatic organisms and animals higher up on the food chain—including, potentially, humans. But microplastics aren’t limited to waterways.
“It might spend some time in that soil and along comes some big winds which might remobilize that plastic and some soil back into the atmosphere, and it might have another atmospheric lifetime and it might end up in the ocean,” Brahney said. “So, in this way plastics are just bouncing around the surface of the Earth.”
Dr. Brahney studies microplastic levels all over the country. One hypothesis is that cities have high rates of microplastics but that urban air stays relatively contained by tall buildings. So, plastic particles from the inner city mostly stay in the inner city—until a storm comes through, triggering a so-called “wet deposition” and scattering urban plastics into rural areas. Another contributor to the problem is large-scale agriculture, which uses fertilizers that contain a lot of microplastics. Every time large-scale farmers till the land, those plastic particles shift around, threatening waterways.
Microplastics can also get into the environment via dry deposition, meaning through the movement of dust. The biggest culprits in those cases are roads.
“They’re long and they’re linear, so that allows winds to pick up speeds along roads,” Brahney said. “But also, cars driving on roads provide that mechanical energy to move particles high into the atmosphere, much higher in the atmosphere where we see a lot of our storms and our clouds. Above clouds we have plastics moving around in the atmosphere.”
Among protected lands in the West, Rocky Mountain National Park has some of the highest-recorded levels of plastic. That’s because climate patterns push air through the urban sprawl around Denver and Fort Collins and then directly into the park. In fact, Brahney said that in all the Inner West’s protected areas combined, there are between 1,000 and 2,419 metric tons of plastic deposited every year
“That’s an enormous amount of plastic falling out of the sky.”
It’s hard to avoid using plastic. Cosmetics and industrial paints applied through aerosol sprays are big contributors. Ski wax, for its part, is considered a small part of the problem but Arlein saw the opportunity for an eco-friendly solution in mountain town markets. He started Mountain Flow Eco-Wax in 2016, experimenting with more than 200 combinations of plant-based waxes in his home kitchen over two years before landing on the perfect biodegradable recipe.
“It’s a classic micro pollution problem. You can’t see it, and on an individual level it seems inconsequential. But if you look from a macro perspective, and there’s 60 million plus skier visits in the U.S. alone every single year, it’s hundreds of thousands of pounds of wax that are being introduced into the environment.”
Traditional ski wax causes an added layer of environmental harm because the chemicals that make skis move fast over snow are fluorocarbons, which are similar to Teflon. Fluorocarbons are toxic both to wildlife and humans applying the wax, and Scientific American has reported that high levels of exposure to them can lead to serious health risks, including cardiovascular disease, liver damage, hormone disruptions and cancer.
Arlein said he tackled this micro pollution challenge from a skier’s perspective and that he was careful not to sacrifice speed or performance for environmental benefits. And while a new ski wax won’t save the world, he said, making a different purchase that doesn’t sacrifice affordability or quality is an easy behavioral change for customers to make.