Take a look at what you’re wearing right now—anything synthetic? Polyester, maybe some nylon, perhaps with a zipper coated in urethane? It turns out, some tiny bits of that synthetic material could very well end up falling on the Arctic, embedded in a snowflake, or suspended in a raindrop on the slopes of the Rockies.
Two recent studies are a double whammy of distressing news about just how prevalent plastic pollution has become, even in some of the most remote places on the planet.
First, USGS scientists working in Colorado unexpectedly discovered microplastic particles in samples of rainwater they collected across the state. Some collection areas were over 10,000 feet in elevation, way up high in the Rocky Mountains, others near cities. The research was meant to discover the rate of nitrogen pollution in the atmosphere. Nobody was looking for plastics. Finding plastic microparticles in high elevation raindrops was a shock. “It’s in the rain, it’s in the snow. It’s a part of our environment now,” said Gregory Wetherbee, lead author of the study. Called simply, “It’s Raining Plastic,” the report outlines the different types of plastic found in rainwater. They found different colors, different shapes, slightly different sizes, though tiny enough to be easily born aloft into the atmosphere. The study’s conclusion, as if the authors themselves can’t quite believe it, begins with the same three words as the title: “It’s raining plastic.”
Concentrations were higher near urban areas, but discovering plastic at well over 10,000 feet showed the researchers that the plastic particles are pretty much everywhere now and likely have been for many years since they almost certainly didn’t originate at the top of a mountain. “Deposition of plastic is ubiquitous and not just an urban condition,” the report states.
The report makes it clear that the material can’t be traced back to its source, but, really, we know it’s us. We already know that washing synthetic clothing can contribute microplastic fibers to waterways; perhaps through evaporation it finds its way into clouds. Or plastic bits from discarded trash breaks down into tiny particles so small they can be carried to the heavens by wind. Nobody really seems to know how much plastic is out there in the natural world, anyway, or whether humanity has the capability to clean most of it up. Scientists have spent far more time studying the plastic in oceans, less so the plastic drifting around in the atmosphere and falling on mountains in raindrops.
It’s also falling as snow.
Another study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, revealed that little bits of plastic are also all over the Alps and the Arctic too. Actually, scientists knew microplastics were present in the Arctic, deposited there by falling snow, they just weren’t sure how they were getting there. Analyzing snow samples in the Swiss Alps showed that the plastics were present in the snow there too. Leading researchers to conclude the plastic were being carried north through the atmosphere. So they could be everywhere at this point. “Concentrations in snow were very high, indicating significant contamination of the atmosphere,” the study explained.
Similar findings have occurred in the Pyrenees. And in China. It’s in the sea. It’s in the fish, it’s in the air. We eat it, we breathe it. Apparently, we also ski on it.
Because researchers don’t know how much plastic is out there, floating around in the world, it’s impossible to say whether cleaning it all up is possible. Techniques for studying microplastics can only examine down to 11 microns in size. Some researchers assume plastic fibers can break down into pieces far smaller than that, meaning, well, it’s anybody’s guess just how much is out there. Or how long it will exist.
“Even if we waved a magic wand and stopped using plastic, it’s unclear how long plastic would continue to circulate through our rivers waters systems,” said the University of Birmingham’s Stefan Krause. “Based on what we do know about plastic found in deep sources of groundwater, and accumulated in rivers, I would guess centuries.”
It’s not much, but there may be at least one small way to avoid contributing to the problem. Companies like Guppyfriend and Cora Ball make products that can trap plastic from being released into waterways when you do laundry. It may not clean the Arctic, but it’s something.
Photo: Sonja Wilkinson