“What humans have been doing for decades now is what I call a ‘plastification’ of the landscape and oceans.”
Microplastics have permeated the oceans, carried as they are by currents far and wide across the planet. They are present even in the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth.
A similar process has been taking place on the surface of the planet too, with microplastics and larger plastic waste having made their way up even mountaintops.
In fact, airborne plastic particles are being carried by winds around the planet, says a team of scientists who call plastic pollution “one of the most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century” in their new study.
The billions of tons of discarded plastic that we have dumped and continue to dump into landfills and the oceans do not just disappear. Over time plastic waste breaks down into tiny particles that can then spread far and wide in air and water with ease.
As a result, microplastics, which are often invisible to the naked eye, continue to accumulate everywhere, making their way into the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.
Already plastic waste has reached gargantuan proportions and and its rate is increasing still, according to the researchers who examined 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western part of the United States.
Based on their model of atmospheric conditions, they found that hardly any of the airborne microplastics derived from plastic waste in nearby urban areas at the sites they studied.
Rather, a lot of the microplastics had been borne by winds across oceans from distant areas, accounting to about a tenth of airborne plastics in the western U.S. Tiny plastic particles, once airborne, can stay suspended in air for as long as a week, which means that blown by winds they can travel from one continent to another, they explain.
Roads across the country, meanwhile, accounted for a whopping 85% of the microplastic present in the air, likely from vehicle tires and brake pads, as well as litter on roadsides.
The end result of the large-scale plastic pollution has been the “plastification” of the planet, according to Prof. Andreas Stohl, a scientist at the University of Vienna’s Faculty of Earth Sciences. “What humans have been doing for decades now is what I call a ‘plastification’ of the landscape and oceans,” Stohl told the Guardian newspaper.
“People should be concerned about airborne microplastics,” the scientist stressed. “Firstly, because they will inhale it and it is very likely that this will have some health impacts.
“And secondly, because the atmosphere is a great distributor. It transports plastic particles to regions where we definitely don’t want to have them: agricultural fields, national parks, oceans, the Arctic, even Antarctica. Eventually, we will have extremely high concentrations of plastics everywhere,” he added.