A fine layer of plastic now extends from the deepest ocean floor to the tops of the highest mountains, swirling in the wind and smothering every ecosystem on Earth, according to new research published in the journal Science.
The study was conducted in 11 protected areas in the western USA and after collecting rainwater and air samples for 14 months, researchers calculated that over 1,000 metric tons of microplastic particles fell into these remote national parks each year. That’s the equivalent of over 120 million plastic water bottles.
Plastic deposition rates averaged 132 pieces per square metre each day, and it is estimated eleven billion metric tons of plastic are projected to accumulate in the environment by 2025. The study area, which included some of the most pristine environments in the USA prompted lead author Janice Brahney, an environmental scientist at Utah State University to say, “The number was just so large, it's shocking.”
For more details let's turn to Wired Mag who reported on the study: "It further confirms an increasingly hellish scenario: Microplastics are blowing all over the world, landing in supposedly pure habitats, like the Arctic and the remote French Pyrenees. They’re flowing into the oceans via wastewater and tainting deep-sea ecosystems, and they’re even ejecting out of the water and blowing onto land in sea breezes. And now in the American West, and presumably across the rest of the world given that these are fundamental atmospheric processes, they are falling in the form of plastic rain—the new acid rain.
Plastic rain could prove to be a more insidious problem than acid rain, which is a consequence of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. By deploying scrubbers in power plants to control the former, and catalytic converters in cars to control the latter, the US and other countries have over the last several decades cut down on the acidification problem. But microplastic has already corrupted even the most remote environments, and there’s no way to scrub water or land or air of the particles—the stuff is absolutely everywhere, and it’s not like there’s a plastic magnet we can drag through the oceans. What makes plastic so useful—its hardiness—is what also makes it an alarming pollutant: Plastic never really goes away, instead breaking into ever smaller bits that infiltrate ever smaller corners of the planet. Even worse, plastic waste is expected to skyrocket from 260 million tons a year to 460 million tons by 2030, according to the consultancy McKinsey. More people joining the middle class in economically-developing countries means more consumerism and more plastic packaging."
Head on over to Wired for the full story here.
So how are synthetic materials ending up falling from the sky? The answer is from multiple sources, but clothing, paint, tyres and shoes are some of the main culprits. These microplastics (less than 5 millimeters long) of fragmented particles get caught up in Earth’s atmospheric systems and deposited across the globe.
According to research conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute 109 grams of microplastics per capita wash directly into our soil, rivers and oceans every year from shoe sole abrasion alone.
Combine this with polyester clothing fragments, tyre reside, toxic paint, and the more ubiquitous images we see of disintegrating bottles and things aren’t too pretty.
There’s no nook or cranny on the planet where it doesn’t end up, with microplastics in our water and food supply and the air we breathe. So yes, we are all eating the soles of other people’s shoes, and whether a topping of EVA plastic on your breakfast cereal (however sweet the foam may be) is harmful is still something scientists are working on quantifying, but it's not the kind of morning supplement we are keen on.