While smoggy particles and carbon dioxide are still primary sources of air pollution, much concern has turned to airborne plastic, too.
How does plastic become an air pollutant? And how serious is it?
Plastic gets into the air in at least three troubling ways: from microfibers, from plastic throwaways, and from the use of petroleum.
Sources of Microplastic
One significant source of plastic microfibers is clothing. Clothes made from synthetics like polyester as well as from recycled soda and water bottles and plastic bags shed fibers when they’re washed and dried.
Residential clothes dryers can vent a waste stream filled with plastic microfibers into the air; laundry water can carry microfibers, too. Fibers sent to a wastewater treatment plant could end up in sludge that is then spread on farm fields for fertilizers, where the fibers eventually contaminate the soil or dry and get swooped into the air. Patagonia, the sports wear company that’s been a pioneer of manufacturing clothing from recycled plastic, found that the average synthetic jacket releases 1.7 grams of microfibers per load of laundry.
Microfibers also come from bottles, bags, and containers that litter beaches and streams. Eventually, these plastics break up into very tiny pieces, some no bigger than a grain of salt or a human hair. They’re so light, they easily become airborne in a breeze. When it rains, they get carried back down to earth.
Slow degradation of car tires, plastic park benches, and other items made from plastic also cause a problem, even if the plastic has been recycled. The trend to use recycled plastic as the basis for roadways is particularly troubling, as the material will degrade into tiny pieces the more it is exposed to the elements, not to mention the weight of so many speeding vehicles, becoming another source of plastic air pollution.
Researchers with the US Geological Survey have found microscopic plastic fibers in 90% of the rain they sampled in Colorado. The samples were taken from eight sites along Colorado’s Front Range, six along the urban Boulder-to-Denver corridor, and two others at mountain elevations so remote that the only way they could have gotten there is via air currents.
High amounts of microplastic have also been found in the air in France’s Pyrenees Mountains. In fact, researchers found as much floating plastic pollution in the air in the Pyrenees as they found over Paris and Dongguan, a large industrial city in China.
“We expected to find some; not quite as much as we did,” said the scientists. “If this much microplastic manages to get halfway up the Pyrenees mountains, it could theoretically be everywhere, floating hundreds of miles from its original source.” Those are prophetic words, since microplastic has already been found in the Arctic.
Microplastics and Health
Microplastic pollution raises serious health concerns reported a coalition seven environmental organizations. For example, they’re tiny enough to be inhaled. If that happens, will they be like other pollutants, like the ones found in smog that trigger asthma and other respiratory illnesses? Possibly. The report, “Plastic and Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet” states, “We don’t know what they do to humans,” said the group in…but there’s so much of it and it’s increasing so fast that it’s something we really need to start learning about.”
Another concern is that we’re also probably eating plastic. In 2013, researchers found up to 9,200 particles of microplastic per cubic meter of seawater, about the equivalent of emptying a salt shaker into a large moving box. Does that mean sea salt contains microplastic? Unfortunately, it probably does, especially since it’s already showing up in shellfish. Plastic pollution in the ocean could outweigh the fish there by 2050.
Plastics and Climate Change
In addition to polluting the air and water, plastic has a big carbon footprint, too. Researchers reporting in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change found that every combination of plastics production and end-of-life disposal generates greenhouse gas emissions.
Indeed, greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics are projected to be nearly four times greater by the middle of this century.
Where will it stop? Plastic production has increased from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 380 million metric tons in 2015. About 42% of plastic is designed for packaging, most of which is single-use. Two-thirds of all plastic ever produced has been released into the environment and remains there in some form.
Recycle Plastic? What’s the alternative?
Recycling is not the solution to a problem estimated to be causing at least $13 billion in damages each year. For one thing, only 9 percent of plastic waste is being recycled, reports National Geographic.
We must reduce plastic by adopting alternatives. Some steps show promise, like the plastic bans and restrictions sixty-six percent of countries globally have put in place. And new efforts to fabricate plastic from biodegradable plants like seaweed and sugarcane also shows promise.
Still, it could be too little too late. And that realization might be enough to drive you to drink—except that plastic is showing up in beer, too. A 2014 study in Germany tested 24 brands for plastic fibers and granules. Plastic microparticles were found in every one.
Our children will live with the climate crisis, so along with educating ourselves about the growing problem of plastic pollution, let’s teach them about it now. The Plastic Pollution Coalition has collected materials to help teach kids about plastic pollution. Check out the resources divided by grade level and the art, music, and poetry projects.