I’m sure you’ve heard of acid rain, but what about plastic rain? Little microplastic particles, less than 5 millimeters long, that is made out of fragments of plastic bottles and microfibers that come from pollutants that get in the Earth’s atmosphere.
According to an article from WIRED, “after collecting rainwater and air samples for 14 months, they calculated that over 1,000 metric tons of microplastic particles fall into 11 protected areas in the western US each year. That’s equivalent of over 120 million plastic water bottles.”
Scientists only looked at protected areas, which is only 6% of the total US area. Looking at the entire US could show some intimidating numbers. These microplastics are falling all over the world, landing in places like the Arctic, flowing into the oceans, and blowing onto land. Plastic rain can be more of an issue than acid rain because of the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.
Scientists seem to have a love and hate relationship with plastic because while it’s sturdy, this means it never really goes away. It just breaks into smaller pieces that can harm all sorts of environments. By 2030, plastic waste is expected to explode from 260 million tons a year to 460 million tons. Our society’s need for plastic seems to only increase as we continue through life.
Researchers went to 11 national parks to sample both rain and air. There were buckets that collected each, if rainfall happened the dry bucket would shut and rain bucket would open to collect samples. Vice versa, when it was sunny outside the rain bucket would close and the dry bucket would open to collect samples. Researchers found that 98% of samples had microplastic particles.
Janice Brahney, an environmental scientist at Utah State University, who conducted this experiment said a big way the weather can transport particles is by the wind. Because of the smaller size and lack of density of the particles, it can travel farther distances when the wind is a factor.
Microplastics can break into nanoplastics, making them so small researches may not be able to detect them without special equipment. The spread of microplastics can very much disrupt all walks of life. University of Strathclyde, Steve Allen, who studies microplastic says it can have cascading effects. What effects the soil can then affect the worms and block up their digestive tract.
The next puzzle scientists are trying to figure out is what actually happens during a microplastic life cycle. Does it dissolve? Does it never break down and stay in the environment? Some studies are showing it just keeps breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming minuscule.
There is still much to discover when it comes to the effects plastic will have on the world, stay tuned!