The Invisible Pollutant: Microplastics in Our Air
July 5, 2023
It is impossible to go a day without interacting with something made out of plastic. We live in a world consumed by the convenience of the toxic material without understanding the true health implications it imposes. Did you know research has shown so much plastic is picked up by wind that the average human could be inhaling up to 16.2 bits of plastic every hour – equivalent to an entire credit card a week?
Plastic was made for the convenience of human consumerism and consumption, but it is polluting the air we breathe. Studies have shown airborne microplastic concentrations ranging from 0.01 particles per cubic meter in parts of the Pacific Ocean to several thousand particles per cubic meter in London and Beijing. So next time you catch a glimpse of particles through a beam of light, think about what you’re looking at and how you’re inhaling it.
Microplastics are defined as small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long. It takes 1,000 years for disposable items such as a plastic bag to degrade, and instead of breaking down completely, the micro and nano plastics created absorb toxins and infiltrate our Earth’s systems.
Disposable bags aren’t the only items putting plastics into our environment. Cosmetics, clothing, industrial processes, packaging materials — all are just a few examples of how microplastics enter the atmosphere. The cosmetics industry is one of the fastest growing markets and a large contributor of microplastics, whether in the product’s formula or in packaging. Microplastics can be added into the formula of certain products in order to acquire their unique properties, such as scrubs and facial products.
Chemical and physical weathering, through both human and natural processes, break down plastics into sizes making them invisible — but everywhere. Wind currents carry microplastics to the most remote parts of Earth in a matter of days. 25 metric tons tons of micro and nano plastics are transported thousands of kilometers a year by ocean air, sea spray, and fog.
Micro and nano particles aren’t just carried to remote places by wind currents but have the ability to also act as ice-nucleating particles (INPs) and potentially as cloud condensation nuclei (CCN). Not only does this have the potential to affect cloud formation processes, but sufficient quantities of microplastics could change the cloud’s sunlight reflection, precipitation, and lifetime – ultimately altering the Earth’s radiation balance and the climate.
These plastic particles don’t stay in the atmosphere. Because microplastics are small enough to go through the evaporation and precipitation process they are found in drinking water, rainfall, snowfall, and oceans. Reducing the amount of microplastics we put into the atmosphere by finding sustainable alternatives as they are important in the fight against plastic pollution in the air.
EARTHDAY.ORG’s End Plastic Pollution campaign encourages awareness and action surrounding the threat plastic poses not just on ourselves but our planet. Make sure to sign our plastic petitions to help the effort in getting the United States to join the Global Plastics Treaty.