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Plastic particles can travel in the air across entire continents

It’s estimated that there could be 80 million metric tons of trash dropped into the ocean annually by 2040. As of now, tiny particles of plastic are found nearly everywhere from soil water and air to inside the human body. Even the remote waters around Antarctica and the Arctic have transported plastics to frozen shores and the bottom of seas. 

Now, researchers have found that air can transport tiny plastic particles to distant lands and waters. The experts estimate that, each year, between 0.013 and 25 million metric tons of nano- and microplastics are carried by air, snow, sea spray and fog across entire continents. 

“Air is a much more dynamic medium than water. As a result, micro- and nanoplastic can much more quickly penetrate those regions of our planet that are most remote and still largely untouched,” explained study co-author Dr. Melanie Bergmann from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI).

Plastic particles end up in the atmosphere from a number of different sources. Some are directly caused by humans, such as particles created from tires and brakes or exhaust. Other particles end up in the atmosphere from the marine environment. Because of this, the researchers emphasize the importance of better understanding the interactions between water and atmosphere and the role plastics play in this system. 

“We need to integrate micro- and nanoplastic in our measurements of air pollution, ideally on an international scale as part of global networks,” said Dr. Bergmann.

The experts noted that further research and collaboration on an international and interdisciplinary level will be required to understand and tackle this problem. 

“To address the uncertainties and remaining knowledge gaps in the marine-atmospheric micro(nano)plastic cycle, we propose a future global marine-atmospheric micro(nano)plastic observation strategy, incorporating novel sampling methods and the creation of a comparable, harmonized and global data set,” wrote the study authors.

“Together with long-term observations and intensive investigations, this strategy will help to define the trends in marine-atmospheric pollution and any responses to future policy and management actions.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Reviews, Earth and Environment.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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