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Tiny bits of plastic are now falling from the skies

Published Jun 15th, 2020 6:06PM EDT
plastic rain
Image: Malcolm Schuyl/Flpa/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

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  • Scientists have found that plastics are invading protected regions of the United States in ways never before known.
  • Tiny bits of plastics are raining down from the skies and floating freely in the air, with over 1,000 metric tons of the material being deposited into protected areas of the western US every year.
  • These protected areas, like national parks, are dealing with human trash despite efforts to prevent exactly that.

Plastics are great and also terrible. They’re great because they’re durable, cheap, and have a seemingly endless number of uses. Unfortunately, those same things are also what makes them terrible, at least for the environment. Plastics are everywhere, from the most remote islands to the middle of the oceans, and a new study reveals that they’re even raining down on us from above.

When you see a piece of plastic trash on the ground, you’re only seeing part of the problem that plastics pose from an environmental standpoint. Plastics we can see, gather, and dispose of properly are one thing, but tiny microplastics that invade every nook and cranny on the planet are an entirely different and more serious concern.

In the study, which was published in Science, researchers reveal that microplastics are now falling down from the skies, and in huge quantities. The researchers took rain and air samples from some of the most protected areas of the country — national parks — and analyzed the contents.

What they found was shocking. No matter where they looked, they found tiny bits of plastic floating all around us, even in raindrops falling from above. When the scientists crunched the numbers they calculated that roughly 1,000 metric tons of plastic falls from the skies in the 11 protected areas of the western United States every single year.

“We report on the rates and sources of [plastic] deposition to remote U.S. conservation areas,” the researchers write. “We show that urban centers and resuspension from soils or water are principal sources for wet-deposited plastics. By contrast, plastics deposited under dry conditions were smaller in size, and the rates of deposition were related to indices that suggest longer-range or global transport. Deposition rates averaged 132 plastics per square meter per day, which amounts to >1000 metric tons of plastic deposition to western U.S. protected lands annually.”

That’s an incredible amount of plastic in regions of the country that are supposed to be protected from major human influences. It shows that no matter where you are, plastics are lurking. We already know that the ocean is packed with microplastics and that it impacts reef ecosystems and harms fish and other marine wildlife. Now, knowing that tiny bits of plastic are falling from the skies, it seems no area is truly safe from the scourge of plastic waste.