Plastic Precipitation

For decades, environmentalists have warned about the ever-increasing amounts of plastics polluting the world. One particularly striking example has been the vast amounts of plastic found in the world’s oceans. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a region of the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles from shore, contains at least 87,000 tons of waste, much of it discarded plastics, fishing nets, and other debris. Plastic waste is also a major issue on land, where debris and litter are a threat to plants, wildlife, and human health. Discarded bottles, bags, and packaging material, even in otherwise pristine environments, can serve as a constant reminder of our dependence on plastics. Now, scientists are warning that plastics can also be found in the air we breathe.

East River, Colorado, one of the areas sampled for plastic pollution. Image by Jeffrey Beall, CC BY 3.0.

In a recent study, published by Brahney et.al. in the research journal Science, scientists collected samples from 11 locations around the United States. These included National Parks and other wilderness areas, regions that should be pristine and protected. Surprisingly, the researchers found that plastics were found in 98% of the samples that they collected! This included plastic microfibers, which are commonly used in fabrics, and microplastic particles that can originate from many different sources. These fragments are incredibly small, less than 5mm in length, and can be carried by the wind before “raining” down on distant areas. In fact, some samples revealed that up to 4% of the dust collected was made out of microplastics.

Examples of microplastics. Image by Oregon State University, 2012.

These findings are startling for many reasons. The plastic pollution can disrupt plant, animal, and microbial communities, and the presence of microplastics in remote areas shows how easily the particles can travel. In addition, fine plastic particles in the air can pose a hazard as they are inhaled. Air pollution accounts for millions of premature deaths per year – the World Health Organization estimates that air pollution accounts for more than 7 millions deaths each year, with over 4.2 million deaths due to particulate pollution. While the impact of microplastics on these deaths is still unknown, it is likely they that can contribute to various respiratory diseases.

So what can you do to help? The authors of the research paper note that this is going to require a worldwide commitment to solve, particularly due to the ability of microplastics to spread by air and water. If possible, avoid purchasing items containing microplastics (these often include beauty products or toothpastes) and single-use plastic items. Much of the microplastics found come from the breakdown of larger objects, so ensure that your plastics are recycled or properly disposed of. Additionally, consider using natural fabrics, rather than those made from synthetic microfibers. Finally, engage in local environmental cleanup initiatives – the #trashtag challenge took off in March of 2019 and continues to be a fantastic way to clean up the environment while gaining the adoration of your social media fans!

To read the research article by Brahney et. al. visit https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6496/1257 (unfortunately the paper currently requires a subscription to Science). A wonderful summary can also be found in the New York Times science section.