Michael Probst / AP
Sunday, June 21, 2020 | 2 a.m.
As Nevadans see images of microplastic floating in the ocean, washing up on beaches and turning up in the bellies of marine wildlife, we might think pollution from the pervasive stuff is a faraway problem.
But a new report in the journal Science shows microplastics are all around us in the West — in the air we breathe, on the trails we hike, even in the rain.
Here are the alarming facts: Based on examinations of rainwater and air samples collected over a 14-month span in 11 protected areas, the researchers calculated that an average of 132 pieces of microplastic land in every square meter of Western wilderness each day. That translates to 1,000 metric tons falling across the entire area of the study, which makes up about 6% of the total landmass of the U.S. The tonnage is equivalent to more than 120 million plastic water bottles being ground up and sprinkled around.
And this was in just those areas, which included the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park.
“The number was just so large, it’s shocking,” the report’s lead author, Janice Brahney, told Wired.
Microplastic is infesting the West in two ways, the researchers said: It’s being carried in by high-altitude winds and being dumped in rainfall after being swept up in storms in regional cities.
The problem is due to the nature of plastic, which never completely dissolves but instead breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces as it decays. The bits can become so small they’re invisible to the naked eye and can be breathed into the lungs, like dust particles. Other research on microplastics has found that it’s become part of the food chain. Once these nanoplastics are in the body, they can be absorbed into tissue.
The effects of ingesting these pollutants isn’t entirely known. But researchers say concentrations of it in tissue can leach chemicals that are known to cause health problems, including cancers, weakened immunity and reproductive difficulties.
In one depressing sense, the study of Western areas is no surprise. Microplastics have been found practically everywhere, including the Arctic and deep seas. A study last year in the journal Environmental Science and Technology revealed that Americans eat, drink and breathe 74,000 to 121,000 microplastic particles each year, and those who drink bottled water exclusively ingest another 90,000 particles.
The researchers who examined the West didn’t set out to find microplastics, but instead wanted to explore how wind-blown dust delivers nutrients to plants. But when Brahney and her colleagues put the dust they’d collected under a microscope, they found it peppered with brightly colored fragments of plastic. The bulk of these pieces were less than a third the width of a human hair.
To figure out where the stuff was coming from, the researchers determined that 75% of it had been deposited during dry weather, which indicated it had been carried aloft the jet stream until falling to the ground. Using weather data, the team concluded that the remaining 25% was brought in by rainfall.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done about the billions of tons of plastic that are already in the environment.
“We created something that won’t go away,” Brahney said in Science. “It’s now circulating around the globe.”
But in reducing use of plastics, particularly single-use items like drinking straws, plastic food bags and plastic utensils, we can at least keep more of the stuff from entering the environment. As is, plastic waste is expected to nearly double in 10 years from the current rate of 260 million tons annually. But the more plastic we keep out of circulation, the less there will be to blow around and break down — including in the Nevada desert.
Besides attacking the problem from a consumer angle, another critical need is investment in plastics recycling in waste management systems. As it stands now, plastics contaminated with food waste go to landfills instead of being recycled, simply because of inadequate investment and commitment to waste management systems that can save the environment and save lives. With better and more comprehensive commitment to all kinds of recycling, these problems can be mitigated significantly. But it requires buy-in at all levels: individuals, municipalities, counties, states, federal government and the international community.
The push starts locally, though, with the public insisting on waste management that brings a more fulsome view of recycling, and supporting advancements.
Meanwhile, experts say there are a number of ways for people to reduce their risk of ingesting microplastics. Among them: drinking tap water instead of bottled water; not heating food in plastic; avoiding plastics marked with the 3, 6 or 7 recycling codes, as they contain particularly problematic chemicals; eating more fresh food; buying products packaged in glass; supporting policies that limit single-use items; and storing food in reusable nonplastic containers.