Microplastics travel on the breeze — they only need wind to spread far and wide, travelling impressive distances in the atmosphere.

Image credits: Peter Charaff.

In recent years, plastic pollution has emerged as one of the major environmental issues mankind must deal with. Microplastics, in particular, have gained massive attention due to the ease with which they travel from their source through ecosystems. They often end up in the oceans, where they will take centuries to decompose, and have started to enter the food chain, even ending up inside humans. Now, a new study carried out in southern France, in the Pyrenees mountains, finds that microplastics can also travel through the atmosphere, riding regular winds and ending up far away from where they were released.

Deonie Allen, a postdoc researcher from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, studied a remote mountain catchment in the French Pyrenees. Over a period of five months, she and her colleagues collected samples of atmospheric dry and wet deposits.

They found substantial amounts of microplastics, including plastic fragments, film and fibre debris. Researchers calculated that every day, 366 particles are deposited for every square meter (249 fragments, 73 films and 44 fibres. The team found that some microplastic pollution travelled 95 km (59 miles).

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Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic waste (5.0 mm in size or less) that are either produced in their current sizes or chip off from larger pieces of plastic. These include microfibers from clothing, microbeads, and plastic pellets.

In 2014, it was estimated that there are between 15 and 51 trillion individual pieces of microplastic in the world’s oceans. Microplastics are common in our world today. They’ve been found in rivers, oceans, and even polar regions — previous studies have shown that microplastics can travel long distances in rivers or seas. However, until now, it was unclear how microplastic pollution could also travel to the atmosphere.

French Pyrenees — a typical landscape. Image in public domain.

The mountainous regions of the Pyrenees are often considered to be a pristine wilderness area, due to the difficulty of human access and distance from major population centres. Previous research shows that the Pyrenees Mountains have been the sentinels of anthropogenic pollution as far back as 685 AD, being largely shielded from mining and industrial activities. However, this is no longer the case — microplastic is coming through the air.

“This study reports the atmospheric deposition of MPs in a remote
Pyrenean mountain location,” researchers write. “We suggest that microplastics can reach and affect remote, sparsely inhabited areas through atmospheric transport.”

According to a comprehensive review of scientific evidence published by the European Union‘s Scientific Advice Mechanism in 2019, microplastics are now present in every part of the environment. Researchers and conservationists have called for more decisive policy measures to eliminate the production of microplastics and reduce our overall plastic consumption. Last year, the EU completely banned single-use plastics.

The study “Atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastics in a remote mountain catchment” has been published in Nature Geoscience.