Hint: To reduce plastic rain and microplastics in the environment we need to reduce, then reduce some more, reuse, and recycle (correctly and responsibly). When we can’t do that, we should landfill responsibly, compost only things that are beneficial to soil, and don’t let plastic (even if it’s bioplastic) sit outside.
It is literally raining plastic. Study after study have found that microplastics are raining down on even the most remote parts of the world. As you're making reusable swaps this Plastic Free July, let's not forget about the pressing issue of microplastics today.
Three Alarming Examples of Plastic Rain
When Gregory Wetherbee, US Geological Survey researcher, began analyzing rainwater samples collected from the Rocky Mountains, he was focused on studying nitrogen pollution. Instead, he was shocked to find multicolored plastic fibers, a.k.a. microplastics, under his microscope.
Utah State University researchers collected rainwater and air samples for fourteen months and also discovered microplastic particles everywhere. They calculated that over 1,000 metric tons - the equivalent of 120 million plastic water bottles - of microplastics fall onto 11 protected areas in the western US each year, representing just 6% of this country’s total land area.
Scientists from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research analyzed snow samples in the Fram Strait - an unpopulated area between Greenland and the Norwegian Arctic. They found alarming levels of microplastics they concluded must have fallen from the sky.
And it isn’t just in our rain, it is in our air as well. The Utah State University researchers found that 4% of the captured atmospheric particulates were actually synthetic polymers (and that 98% of samples collected contained microplastic particles).
While these small plastic particles alone might not be too scary, thinking about the ubiquity of microplastic in our water and air - and subsequently in the plant and wildlife (and humans) that live off these resources - is absolutely mind boggling and leads to so many still unanswered questions. With all of this microplastic embedded into our soils, what kind of impact is this having on soil’s ability to absorb carbon and grow plant life? Are microplastics clogging up the digestive systems of worms? What impact are microplastics having on fish and the animals (including people) that eat the fish? What are the consequences of humans and animals breathing in plastic in particulate matter - day in and day out?
Are we breathing plastic rain? While the answers to the questions surrounding microplastics' effect on the human body and plastic rain aren’t perfectly known and agreed upon, scientists agree that these impacts can’t be beneficial to the health of our planet and ourselves.
What Can You Do To Reduce Microplastics?
Are you left wondering how to reduce microplastics and ease plastic rain? A lot of the recommended actions are ones ecologically minded consumers and citizens are already typically pursuing. But, this line of research has also uncovered some surprising contributors to microplastics that may add new strategies to your list of ways to live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle.
Reduce your single use footprint, especially of plastic. This time of COVID has made this critical strategy much harder. Grocery stores aren’t allowing reusable bags, bulk sections are being temporarily shut down, and the only way to support local restaurants is often through takeout. Plastic Free July is an excellent time to reset your commitment to minimizing single use wherever possible right now. Go with reusable, cloth masks instead of disposable ones. Find stores in your area that are allowing for BYO bags. Buy your hand sanitizer and cleaners in bulk packaging.
Don’t let your plastic waste become litter. We’ve all passed that full public trash can and though -- well I can squeeze my trash in this. Please don’t! Litter often starts as items that fall out of overflowing trash bins and eventually get carried away by wind and rain.
Don’t compost things that have polymers and other synthetic components to it. Material can be certified as compostable and still have synthetic polymers in it - often really hidden or embedded in the product. These are exactly the kind of micro-plastics that can end up in plastic rain.
For example, certified compostable shipping labels are made with a paper-based facestock and a synthetic acrylic emulsion adhesive. Compostable bioplastic film typically has a synthetic self sealing adhesive and (if the film is printed) synthetic ink pigments. In fact, many tea bags actually contain a very thin polypropylene skeleton.
When you compost these industrially manufactured items that may pass the test for compostability (i.e. it “goes away” to the naked eye and you can grow a plant in the soil that remains behind) but contain synthetic polymers, you may be intentionally introducing microplastic into our soil.
Composting is an incredible end of life option that should be largely reserved for items with no synthetic components that actually enrich soil - yard waste, food waste, unprinted paper, etc. We strongly recommend that if something can be recycled, please recycle it (even if it is also compostable). Additionally, even if something can be composted, think twice if that item has synthetic elements that will contaminate soil.
Recycle responsibly and buy recycled. Don’t wish cycle! When in doubt, throw it out. Learn what your local recycler accepts and abide by these rules. When you find yourself with items that are technically recyclable but your recycler does not accept them, look for and pursue other recycling options. Buy recycled to help strengthen the market for reclaimed materials, maximizing the chance that your recycling does not end up in the landfill (or worse, as litter).
Avoid synthetic fabrics as much as possible. Over 70% of the plastic particles that researchers found in rainwater were synthetic fabrics such as polyester. When these fabrics are washed in a laundry machine, microplastics are released and directly enter the wastewater stream. Wastewater treatments facilities are not well equipped to filter out these tiny pieces of fabric, so much of this becomes part of our waterways and water systems. In fact, in the US, 94% of tap water samples that were tested contained fabric microfibers. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/...
Check your cleaning and personal hygiene products for microbeads. While microbeads (small balls of plastic that used to be deliberately included in products such as a facial cleanser) are now banned, some products continue to utilize microbeads - such as deodorants and some toothpastes. Check yours and find plastic-free alternatives to any product that ends up going down the drain.
Don’t forget about small things. As you become more sensitive to microplastic, you’ll get better at assessing an item and determining if and how it might contribute to the problem of plastic rain. For example:
- Glitter: It is nearly impossible to glitter, which then ends up outside and quickly becomes microplastic
- Cigarette butts: Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate and sheds microfibers. Cigarettes are the most commonly recovered item in beach cleanups.
- Plastic stickers on your water bottle or on something outside: Plastic can rub off in the dishwasher or in the storms, which then becomes microplastic.
- Tennis balls left outside: The fuzzy outer layer of tennis balls is made from PET, which sheds over time.
- Paint: Utah State Researchers found that a lot of the microplastic they analyzed included “brightly-colored microbeads, in all colors of the rainbow, and some of those we identified as acrylic” This raised the question of whether or not some of the microplastic is coming from chipped off industrial paints and coatings.
Sources and Additional Reading on Microplastics and Plastic Rain