Apr 18, 2019 - Energy & Environment

Plastics are "potentially everywhere"

Adapted from Ostle, et. al., "The rise in ocean plastics evidenced from a 60-year time series", 2019; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Adapted from Ostle, et. al., "The rise in ocean plastics evidenced from a 60-year time series", 2019; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

In the past decade, plastics have been found in the ocean's deepest and most remote points, collecting in massive, dense clumps, and clogging the stomachs of marine life washed up onto shorelines.

What's new: Tiny plastic pieces from broken down bags and packaging are now being detected in another element: the air. These microplastics are being deposited onto an isolated, pristine site in the French Pyrenees at an altitude of about 4,600 feet, per a new study. There's also been a sharp uptick in plastic pollution in the ocean since the late 1950s, according to another study published this week.

Why it matters: The findings bring new urgency to efforts already underway to assess the potential human health impacts from exposure to plastics and the cascading consequences of plastic pollution for ecosystems.

  • Plastics could harm human health if they are ingested in certain quantities over time but exactly what those quantities and conditions are, and whether humans are exposed to them is not yet known with confidence.

What they did: Researchers examined atmospheric particles collected between November 2017 and March 2018 near a meteorological station in the Pyrenees.

  • They found microplastics, ranging in size from about 100 microns to 3 millimeters, were abundant at the site, despite being far from any large cities that would presumably be sources.
  • Analyses of weather conditions found the plastics were likely coming from at least 60 miles away, lofted by the wind and washed out of the air by precipitation, the researchers report in Nature Geoscience.

But, but, but: The new study is limited in scope, having looked at just one small plot of land, and additional field and modeling studies are needed to understand the scale of the airborne microplastics problem, the study's authors tell Axios.

  • However, the results match other observations of airborne microplastics in the megacities of Paris and Dongguan, and raise the possibility that plastic pollution is hitching a ride with the weather, the authors say.
"It is potentially everywhere, it’s where you breathe … and everywhere the wind blows. So what you do impacts everywhere in the world."
— Deonie Allen, study co-author and researcher in the School of Agricultural and Life Sciences in Toulouse, France

The big picture: It's not just microplastics. Pollution from macroplastics — bags, cartons and other debris — has also increased sharply in the North Atlantic.

  • Researchers traced a history of plastic pollution in the North Atlantic since 1957 using data from the Continuous Plankton Recorder, an instrument towed behind ships.
  • They searched the recorder's log for evidence of entanglement in plastic debris, and found the number of instances dramatically increased between 1957 and 2016, particularly in the North Sea.
  • "Plastics are everywhere, small and large, we are finding them all over the world," study lead author Clare Ostle, a research scientist at the Marine Biological Association in the U.K., tells Axios.

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