Microplastics Float Through The Air, Cross Oceans, New Study Finds

Image: Oregon State University/Flickr

Plastic pollution is one of the direst environmental crises we face. Worse yet, nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today yet much of it has merely broken down into microplastics–microscopic fragments of plastic that are ubiquitous in the environment. They’re in food, seaspray, and now, according to new research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could be traveling in the atmosphere across entire continents, carried by winds.

As CNN explained, though there has been some progress with the creation of biodegradable polymers, the researchers warned microplastics “will continue to cycle through the earth’s systems.”

Why This Matters: We have the tools to keep plastic out of the environment, yet we need to get to work ASAP. As the World Wildlife Fund’s Head of Plastic Waste and Business, Erin Simon, wrote for ODP: “we need to create a truly circular economy in which plastic maintains its value at every stage of its life cycle, stopping it from becoming waste in the first place. But in order to accomplish that, we first need a firm grasp of the policy proposals, emerging technologies, and other potential solutions that will shape much of the dialogue around this critical issue.”

Domestic legislation like The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act is a crucial step to tackling U.S. plastic pollution. The bill would shift some financial responsibility for the end-of-life management of plastic packaging to producers, thereby creating an incentive for them to design products that can be more easily reused or recycled. This is a key step as municipal budgets are often strapped for cash and cannot adequately collect and manage plastic waste.

In addition to this, two-thirds of UN member states have already indicated they are open to the idea of a global treaty on plastic akin to the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. This latest PNAS study shows that microplastics don’t linger where they’re created, thus plastic pollution is truly a global problem. The world must come together to ensure that all nations have the support they need to properly manage plastic and create circular economies.

Straight To The Source: Wired wrote of the study that 84% of airborne microplastics in the American West actually comes from the roads outside of major cities. The tires spinning on roads, the braking process, and exhaust from cars help spread microplastic particles, the study revealed.

  • Additionally, another 11% of microplastics could be blowing all the way in from the ocean. (The researchers who built the model reckon that microplastic particles stay airborne for nearly a week, and that’s more than enough time for them to cross continents and oceans.)

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