Friday, July 3, 2020

Plastic-filled rain is intoxicating protected areas, oceans, and more

Bad news. A new study conducted by researchers led by Janice Brahney, an environmental scientist at Utah State University, shows that rain filled with microplastic particles is wreaking havoc on Mother Nature. The scientists observed 11 protected areas in the western United States and found that over 1,000 metric tons of plastic (120 million plastic water bottles) rains over these areas every year.

The conclusion of the study adds on to existing concerns that microplastics are filling Earth’s oceans, and blowing in the form of winds all over the country. These plastics are damaging ocean and land ecosystems, and are too small to be found and removed. According to the consultancy McKinsey, plastic waste is expected to rise to 460 million tons by 2030, from the existing 260 tons.

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Exceedingly small bits of plastic collected in remote areas of the western US. | Image: Janice Brahney/Utah State University

The researchers used an automated method to collect both dry air and rain samples individually in separate buckets in the 11 protected areas they were conducting their study. They even collected additional data about the origin of the storm clouds, and included that in their analysis. Their research found that around 98 percent of the samples they collected contained microplastics and an average of 4 percent of the particles from the atmosphere were man-made. Lead-author Brahney says that due to how they counted, these numbers are actually conservative, WIRED reports.

Another shocking finding that the study led to is that microplastics are travelling very far by using the medium of winds. As plastics are less dense than soil, they are easily picked up by strong gusts. Brahney says, “We saw relationships to the location of the jet stream, which implies that the air masses that are controlling deposition are really high in the atmosphere.”

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What is the source of all these plastics? Interestingly, 30 percent of the plastics found in the samples were microbeads. These are the type of plastic beads that are typically found in the beauty industry, on necklaces, earrings, etc.

A tiny microbead collected in the western US. The scale here is in micrometers, or a millionth of a meter. | Image: Janice Brahney/Utah State University

Another major risk is the high possibility of these microbeads eventually turning into nanobeads. At that size, they will be practically invisible, easily entering the respiratory tracts of animals, humans, birds, etc. Long-term exposure to nanoplastics will have devastating effects on the natural ecosystem. Steve Allen, an microplastic researcher not related to the study says: “These can not just block up the digestive tract of small animals, like worms. But it’s also the chemicals that are on these plastics and in these plastics that can have an effect on the soil. A lot of that is still theoretical—we’re still trying to work it out.”

These microplastics don’t have negative effects on just living things, but the non-living as well. One important part of nature that these microplastics can damage is soil. Microplastics have the potential to alter the way water travels through soil, hurting plant life and the water cycle as well.

Microplastics that make their way into the ocean have been found to resurface on beaches rather than stay in the water. Similarly, there may be a chance that these microplastics don’t stay put on land as well. The large-scale movement of microplastics is making one fact very concrete: there is a whole new microplastic cycle that we need to study. Tracking where and how these plastics move is key to eventually finding a way to help tackle this global issue.

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