Knowing that microplastics have already infiltrated almost all of the world’s oceans is frightening enough. These dangerous fragments of plastic bottles, single-use dinnerware, discarded clothing, and more can cause an array of health problems. Now, microplastics are moving up the water cycle.
In a recent study, scientists analyzing rainwater in the Rocky Mountains found accumulations of microplastics. The discovery goes to show the environmental damage from humans and suggests that there may be very little society can do to fix it. It also serves as a warning about the necessity of decreasing plastic use in the future.
Rain, Rain, Go Away
When U.S. Geological Survey scientist Gregory Wetherbee started analyzing rainwater in the Rockies, he wasn’t even thinking about microplastics. Instead, he planned to find mineral particles and fragments of soil as part of a study on nitrogen pollution. However, when he put his samples under the microscope, he got a very unexpected surprise.
Greeting him were multicolored strands of plastic fibers. His study, titled, “It is raining plastic,” documents the findings. It also questions just how much plastic is actually in the environment.
Wetherbee says, “I think the most important result that we can share with the American public is that there’s more plastic out there than meets the eye. It’s in the rain, it’s in the snow. It’s a part of our environment now.”
He goes on to mention that his findings are “purely accidental.” Nonetheless, they paint a frightening picture of humanity’s environmental footprint.
Wetherbee’s findings agree with those of another study which discovered microplastics in the Pyrenees, another mountain chain. The discouraging evidence suggests that the plastic fragments can travel in the air inside of a cloud for hundreds of miles before falling into the environment via rainwater.
Too Little, Too Late
Although Wetherbee’s findings are disgusting, they shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Despite efforts to study plastic pollution, scientists can currently only account for about one percent of it. Even that tiny portion only comes from the oceans, not the air, freshwater, or soil.
Another researcher, Stefan Krause, from the University of Birmingham says, “Even if we waved a magic wand and stopped using plastic, it’s unclear how long plastic would continue to circulate through our rivers waters systems.”
This goes to show that current efforts to clean up pollution are likely a case of too little, too late. While that doesn’t mean people should stop trying to reduce their plastic use, it simply illustrates that, without major changes, humans could soon be living in a plastic wasteland.
Fortunately, there is still some hope. With modern solutions to cleaning up plastic, humanity stands a chance of reversing the damage. However, it will take a fully unified effort from citizens, government leaders, and influential companies to make this a reality.