By Shera Dolmatz
New evidence illustrates that the ocean is sending minuscule bits of plastic pollution back into the air and onto the land. Bodies of water long believed to be the final resting grounds for discarded plastics are not the last stop. The atmosphere, ocean, and waterways working together keep microplastics cycling throughout the globe.
Microplastics develop as the ocean grinds plastics into micron-sized particles. (A human hair ranges from 20 to 200 microns in width.) Researchers at Utah State and Cornell universities found that oceans are spraying a continual stream of microplastics into the atmosphere. The sea-sprayed aerosols float across the globe and can resettle onto the land causing a secondary re-emission source.
Researchers concluded that even in remote areas of the western US, approximately 11% of all airborne microplastic is from the ocean. Particles collected from 2017 to 2019 found nearly 22,000 tons of microplastics are being deposited across the US annually.
Utah State University’s Janice Brahney explains that “What we’re now seeing in the atmosphere is legacy pollution…decades of emissions.”
The findings suggest that if we were to stop producing plastic, the contamination would continue for generations. Moreover, plastic production is escalating, which compounds the problem. It’s projected that if plastic pollution remains static, the annual global flow of plastic into the ocean would triple by 2040. Currently, estimates are that minimally 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year.
The horror of airborne microplastics is their huge potential to alter much of the Earth’s systems. Microplastics might modify the atmosphere by absorbing enough radiation to warm the planet or create ice crystals, forming clouds. Other hypotheses include microplastics affecting the soil and plant production, possibly making plants unfit for consumption. There may be other unknown consequences for ecosystems and human health. The potential for microplastics to harm the planet is great. Preventing plastic from entering waterways requires the end of global reliance on plastics and the creation of substitutes for this ever-present long-lasting material. New technologies for removing plastics already in the ocean need to be developed as well.
You can push back against the microplastics tide. See how at https://www.sierraclub.org/plastic