The current conversation about microplastics is almost always focused around water because these particles find their way into lakes, rivers, and ultimately the ocean. The fact that discussions and studies are taking place on the topic is a great thing and we need to continue to build on these dialogues every day to make a difference. But recently, because of a handful of studies, the conversation has shifted slightly regarding how and where microplastics are now being found. It turns out that they are literally right under our noses, on the ground below our feet, and in some of the most remote locations in the world!
Annually, textiles make up roughly 14% to 16% of plastic production which amounts to around 60 million tons per year. Things like synthetic clothing material and synthetic rugs give off millions of fibers annually and many of those fibers stay concentrated indoors. People do breathe in microfibers, that's a fact, and babies are the most susceptible because they are the closest to the floor where plastic fibers can comprise almost 30% of the "dust" particles in a home. The question then becomes what type of health concerns should we worry about as a result? Infections, limited lung capacity, longer-term diseases and who knows what else. The answer may be right under our noses, we just don't know it yet.
In the suburbs around Shanghai, China, a study of microplastics in farmland soil showed that a variety of plastic types and sizes were found at both shallow and deep soil depths. The concentrations, as one might expect, were higher in the shallow soils, but the fact that they made it deeper into the soil shows that this type of pollution has been going on for some time. Microplastics can absorb toxic chemicals from their surroundings and transport them as they move through the environment. Who wants to have microplastics laden with toxins make their way into farmers' fields? Certainly not us...
In some of the most remote mountains in the French Pyrenees, researchers were shocked to see the number of microplastics littering this pristine environment. In a five-month study, they took samples that revealed about 250 fragments per square meter were deposited each day! This, more than 95 kilometers from the nearest city and in a place only rarely visited by man. These types of measurements rival some of the biggest cities in the world. So how did these microplastics get there? This study concluded that airborne, atmospheric microplastics were deposited by air currents from far away. This means that microplastics coming from one location can severely pollute another location. Now, not even our highest mountains are safe from the effects of these tiny plastic particles.
The Arctic is vast, desolate, windswept, and frozen; unfortunately, it's also full of microplastics. Ice cores were taken from five regions in the Arctic Ocean and it turns out researchers are finding more of these particles than ever. As many as 12,000 microplastics per liter of sea ice were found in some of these cores. Where would all of this plastic come from in such a forbidding, sparsely-inhabited region of our planet? By tracing the microplastics' "plastic fingerprints," researchers have been able to trace some of these plastics to the fishing industry, shipping industry, land-based sources, and even the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As global temperatures rise and the Arctic sea ice melts, these microplastics are being released back into the ocean without any real idea of how it will affect the wildlife and fish in the region. Clearly, more research is needed to find out these answers, but what we do know it that stopping these plastics from ever making their way into the ocean is a start.
Microplastics aren't only found in the ocean. The prevalence and widespread nature of these plastic particles threaten all four corners of our planet, from the tiniest cracks in the rocks of mountain ranges to the smallest crevices in sea ice. What are future generations going to think when they look back and see that we failed to act on one of the greatest challenges of our time? At 4ocean, we're not waiting to find out. By cleaning the ocean and coastlines and putting in place technology that will stop plastic pollution at its source, we are taking the first steps to clean the ocean for those future generations.
If you've had an experience of finding plastic in a remote location or somewhere unexpected, let us know in the comment section below. Make sure to follow us on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay up to date on all things 4ocean! Also, head on over to our Discover 4ocean Facebook Group to get in on the conversation around microplastics and other important ocean conservation topics.