Microplastics are blowing in the wind | Science News for Students

Microplastics are blowing in the wind

A remote spot in the French Pyrenees is getting as many microplastics per day as downtown Paris
May 7, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
a photo of the Pyrenees mountains in Europe

This part of the Pyrenees mountains in Europe looks remote and clean. But tiny bits of plastic fall here every day, scientists are finding.

G. Le Roux

Plastic pollution from cities doesn’t always stay in cities. Tiny bits can migrate on the wind, a new study finds. This trash can end up on a remote mountain at least 95 kilometers (59 miles) away. It’s the first proof that microplastics — tiny bits of plastic trash 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller — are traveling long distances by air.

a microscopic image of a tiny piece of plastic lint
This is a tiny piece of plastic lint. Such threads are created as larger pieces of plastic fabrics break down.  
S. Allen

And we’re not talking about just a little plastic. The new findings suggest the rain of plastic bits in remote places may rival that in some large cities.

Researchers from EcoLab in Castanet-Tolosan, France, wanted to know if microplastics tend to travel on the winds. To find out, they set up two types of large containers. Each collected microplastics falling out of the air at the Bernadouze weather station. It sits in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. Scientists visited the site roughly once a month for five months. Each time, they took out all the particles that had fallen from the sky. Then they separated out the plastic bits, identified them by type and tallied the totals.

And they found plenty.

An average of 365 microplastic particles per square meter (10.7 square feet) per day landed at the site. This means that plastic lands high in the mountains at a rate “similar to what’s happening in Paris,” says Deonie Allen. She’s an atmospheric and environmental scientist at EcoLab. Her group shared its findings April 15 in Nature Geoscience.

The mountain fallout is somewhat different

a photo of devices used to capture pollutant particles from the air
These aren’t smokestacks or weird types of grills. The gray tube and white funnel are both devices that capture samples of tiny pollutant particles from the air.
S. Allen

The mountaintop may have been getting as many plastic bits as Paris. But the size and types of those bits was not the same. Previous studies had looked at plastics falling from the air in Paris and Dongguan, China. In both cities, most particles were slender fibers larger than about 100 micrometers. That’s a little thicker than a human hair. The fibers were made of the plastics polypropylene (Pah-lee-PRO-puh-leen) or polyethylene terephthalate (Pah-lee-ETH-eh-leen Tair-eh-THAAL-ayt), also known as PET. Clothing and other fabrics often shed these fibers.

At the mountain site, most plastic bits were smaller than 25 micrometers. This plastic pollution wasn’t from fabric. Instead, it consisted mostly of polystyrene and polyethylene. These plastics are found in many packing materials. Polystyrene, for example, is commonly known as Styrofoam.

Polystyrene can be degraded by weather. It also can be broken down by ultraviolet waves from the sun — waves invisible to the human eye. The resulting small bits can easily be carried on the wind, the researchers say. Winds and brief bursts of intense rain or snow were linked, in fact, with more of these plastics raining down on the mountain.

The study couldn’t definitely identify the source of the plastics. Instead the scientists used a computer program. They modeled where the wind was coming from and how fast it was blowing when they collected the trash. The plastics traveled at least 95 kilometers (59 miles) to reach the site, the computer model showed. In fact, Allen says, it’s likely that the plastics came from farther away than that. He points out that there are no big cities within 95 kilometers that would have shed those plastic bits. 

The study confirms that microplastics are everywhere in the environment, says Johnny Gaspéri. He’s an environmental scientist at the Université Paris-Est Créteil. He was not involved in the study.   

So far, the scientists have studied only one mountain site. They want to collect more samples from other remote locations. “It’s not just local pollution, or something only happening in cities,” says study coauthor Steve Allen. He is an atmospheric and environmental scientist at EcoLab. Plastic isn’t staying where people put it. “Invisible pollution is transporting its way around the world.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

coauthor     One of a group (two or more people) who together had prepared a written work, such as a book, report or research paper. Not all coauthors may have contributed equally.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

computer model     A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

deposition     (in chemistry) When atoms settle or are deposited onto a separate material (which is generally known as a substrate).

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

geoscience     Any of a number of sciences, like geology or atmospheric science, concerned with better understanding Earth. People who work in this field are known as geoscientists.

microplastic     A small piece of plastic, 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller in size. Microplastics may have been produced at that small size, or their size may be the result of the breakdown of water bottles, plastic bags or other things that started out larger.

particle     A minute amount of something.

plastic     Any of a series of materials that are easily deformable; or synthetic materials that have been made from polymers (long strings of some building-block molecule) that tend to be lightweight, inexpensive and resistant to degradation.

polyethylene     A plastic made from chemicals that have been refined (produced from) crude oil and/or natural gas. The most common plastic in the world, it is flexible and tough. It also can resist radiation.

polyethylene terephthalate     A commonly used type of plastic, usually referred to simply as PET. It can be produced as strong, stable fibers for use in making clothing. It also is the basis of many plastic beverage bottles (such as milk jugs) and semi-hard food packages (often used for produce). When used in fabrics, it’s simply known as polyester.

polypropylene     The second most common plastic in the world. It is tough and durable. Polypropylene is used in packaging, clothing and furniture (such as plastic chairs).

polystyrene     A plastic made from chemicals that have been refined (produced from) crude oil and/or natural gas. Polystyrene is one of the most widely used plastics, and an ingredient used to make a widely used white, rigid foam (often sold under the name Styrofoam).

Styrofoam     A trademarked name for a type of rigid foam made from light-weight polystyrene plastic. It is used for everything from home craft projects to decorative ornaments and building insulation.

ubiquitous     (n. ubiquity) A term for something that is omnipresent — found essentially everywhere.

ultraviolet     A portion of the light spectrum that is close to violet but invisible to the human eye.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.


Journal: S. Allen et al. Atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastics in a remote mountain catchment. Nature Geoscience. Published online April 15, 2019. doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0335-5.