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The concern of plastic waste has been so severe that now microplastics circulate across the world like oxygen and water in the daily cycles of the atmosphere, according to a recent analysis.
According to a mixture of experts sample and modelling, plastic particles transmitted into the air through ocean and road surfaces migrate across continents to the farthest places on earth.
Most of this waste seems to have been floating in our ecosystems for a long time – showing how much we have to stop the plastic tide by doing a huge clean-up.
“Everywhere we were looking at, we noticed a lot of legacy plastic waste,” says Utah State University geologist Janice Brahney. “It travels across the environment, deposits in the earth.”
“This year’s plastic is not fresh. This is from what we’ve poured over the decades into the world.”
Researchers obtained 313 airborne microplastic samples from 11 locations across the Western US between December 2017 and January 2019. 84% of plastics were from the roads, 11% from the sea and 5% from farm soil and 0.4% from population sources. They find that 84% of plastic parts come from highways.
This plastic is primarily land on roads or fired from waste parks. In other words, it is mainly plastic. The emission of microplastics is not only focused on urban areas but is being transported by the wind everywhere.
The results were then wired into a computational model to test out how atmospheric plastics could look around the world. The team decided – long enough for the plastic to cross the continents – the time taken in the air for the pollutants would range from a one-hour to nearly a week.
While Antarctica’s isolated wilderness does not export airborne microplastics, it is very likely to import them, the model shows – and the storey is identical around the world. Micro plastics accumulate everywhere, with the largest amounts measured over the oceans, researchers look like, including national parks.
‘Most of the continents are net importers of microplastics from the aquatic world, according to Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, based on our best assessment of plastic resources and models for transportation. “This highlights the combined effect of legacy emissions in the plastic air pressure.”
Although some assumptions and estimates are being made in the simulation section of the report for the global mapping of airborne microplastic, there is no question that such polluting materials blow in the wind.
Since the early 1900s, there have been almost 10 billion metric tonnes of plastic worldwide manufactured, and an estimated 12-18 per cent of this is non-deposits, recycle or incineration.
The team behind this new study calls for further studies on when and how the whole plastic stops – affecting habitats, biodiversity, the food chain, and eventually our wellbeing – and distribution worldwide.
“We have modelled the roots. We do not know what they might be,” Mahowald said. ‘It is astounding that this amount of plastic is in this environment, and sadly building upon land and waters, just recirculating and passing about, including distant locations.’
The study was conducted in PNAS.