PlasticIn the Air

it, but it's there.

A project by Giorgia Lupi with Talia Cotton and Phil Cox (Pentagram).
Supported by Google Arts and Culture.

the plastic in the air.

Are you breathing in your sweater? Your tea bag? Your car battery? You might be.

Whether you realize it or not, you (yes! you!) are both surrounded by and inactively emitting microplastics: tiny plastic particles, invisible to the human eye, coming from the everyday objects you use and floating all around us.

11 billion metric tonnes of plastic are projected to accumulate in the environment by 2025
Clear screen
The frequency doesn't change based on time, but your sky does. Come back to have the sky change with you.

More particles. Particles are carried by raindrops.
Smaller particles in the arctic. Particles travel farther and break up.

More fibres. Higher populations consume more clothing and household items.
Smaller particles. Particles travel long distances and break up over time.

With no option for removal, plastic will continue to accumulate over time—12 billion metric tons worth by 2050.
Did you really think that would work? Plastics are made to be durable. Once they're there, they don't disappear.
Symbol Type Quantity Size
Fibres 25%
Films 25%
Granules 25%
Fragments 25%




Possibly from

A sweater



Distance travelled


Plastics are made to be indestructable, so we can only get more.
Find out More

Plastic Air gives you a lens through which to “see” and to explore the plastic particles that are ever-present in the atmosphere around you.

Made to be durable, plastic does not just disappear when we dispose of it. Instead, it degrades into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which then end up within the air we breathe. While these particles are invisible to the naked eye, they’re there—and have real impact on the environment and human health. ①, ②


Since the 1950s, the world has produced more than 8 billion cubic tonnes③ of plastic, most of which is never recycled. Since it is so durable and cheap to make, plastic composes most of the materials around us: clothing, homegoods, packaging, and more. But since it is so durable, plastic cannot ever fully break down.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are microscopic fragments of plastic, generally defined② as being less than 5mm in diameter. Fibers, foams, shards, films: all have been identified by researchers④. While much is not yet known about how microplastics are created and deposited, one estimate suggests⑥ more than 1000 metric tons of microplastics fall each year over just western protected areas.

Where do they exist?
Hint: it’s not just cities.

In addition to various urban centres, a surprising amount of microplastics have recently been observed in remote areas such as the Pyrenees mountains⑤ and protected wilderness areas⑥ in the United States. This suggests that microplastics are pervasive; whether carried by wind or other weather patterns, microplastics travel far from their original place of from where they were discarded. Although more research is needed, microplastics are suspected to exist in all types of environments worldwide.

Once deposited, they enter an unending cycle through our atmosphere.

Plastic can be emitted to the environment from a variety of sources, whether from the source of the plastic production, litter or other mismanaged waste, or even doing your laundry. From there, they are transported through the atmosphere by wind, rain, and even snow. They transfer into lakes and rivers, ingested by humans and animals, and are absorbed into terrestrial and marine ecosystems, in both remote and urban locations.

How does this affect me?

While scientists are just beginning to understand the health and environmental effects of microplastic, we do know that plastic itself gives off harmful toxins and chemicals. It’s estimated that we ingest 74,000 and 121,000 microplastics④ every year, raising serious questions about these particles’ effect on our health, not to mention their impact on wider ecosystems.

The biggest risk is what we don't know.

Due to a lack of awareness and insufficient funding, not nearly enough research exists on microplastics. (It’s hard to feel threatened by something you can’t see.) We hope this experiment will help raise awareness for you to use less plastic, for governments to pass the right laws, and for scientists to get the funding they need.

Fig. 1: Microscope image of microplastics in atmospheric particulate samples. Pictured is a 140μm fiber and 30μm particle (right). (Source: WUSA9⑦, Credit: Janice Brahney, Utah State University)

About this website:

How does this website work?

Inspecting each particle gives you a sense for what it is made of, where it came from, and how far it’s traveled. Depositing within the air allows you to actively see how some every-day objects might break down. If you choose to look away (by selecting “don’t see”), the experiment presents plastics in their familiar forms—sometimes obvious and sometimes surprising — inviting you to inspect what they are made from.

Is this really what they look like?

Yes! Well, sort of. There are many types of microplastics that are identified with a microscope, including but not limited to granules, fibres, fragments, microbeads, and films. We've based the shapes you see here off of these microscopic classification. These plastics have also been found in all colors of the rainbow, including white, black and transparent. Lastly, their size ranges anywhere from under 10μm (the size of a red blood cell) to 5mm. Our visualization is abstracted, but based on real data.

How did we determine the behavior of these particles?

Due to lack of research, there is no one dataset that determines exactly how plastics behave in each weather pattern. However, we’ve used isolated studies to come up with the logic by which the plastics you see here behave. For example, the data for snow is based on a study from European & Arctic Snow⑧. The data for rural areas (both rain and dry) is based on studies from the Pyrenees Mountains⑤ and US protected wilderness areas⑥. The data for urban areas (both rain and dry) is based on a study from Paris, France⑨.

Fig. 2: Our legend for drawing the particles

We are not scientists, but we used research from these people and publications to help our work:

Prata, J. C. 2018. Airborne microplastics: consequences to human health? Environmental pollution 234:115–126.

Thompson, R. C., C. J. Moore, F. S. Vom Saal, and S. H. Swan. 2009. Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364:2153–2166.

University of Georgia. "More than 8.3 billion tons of plastics made: Most has now been discarded." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 July 2017.

Cox, Kieran D. “Human Consumption of Microplastics.” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2019, 53, 12, 7068–7074, doi:10.1021/acs.est.9b01517.s001.

Allen, Steve, et al. “Atmospheric Transport and Deposition of Microplastics in a Remote Mountain Catchment.” Nature Geoscience, vol. 12, no. 5, 2019, pp. 339–344., doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0335-5.

Brahney, Janice, et al. “Plastic Rain in Protected Areas of the United States.” Science, vol. 368, no. 6496, 2020, pp. 1257–1260., doi:10.1126/science.aaz5819.

(TEGNA), Author: Travis Pittman. “1,000 Tons of Plastic Rain Is Falling across the US.” wusa9.Com, 13 June 2020, in the U.S. only)

Bergmann, M., Mützel, S., Primpke, S., Tekman, M. B., Trachsel, J., & Gerdts, G. (2019). White and wonderful? Microplastics prevail in snow from the Alps to the Arctic. Science Advances, 5(8). doi:10.1126/sciadv.aax1157

Dris, R., Gasperi, J., Rocher, V., Saad, M., Renault, N., & Tassin, B. (2015). Microplastic contamination in an urban area: A case study in Greater Paris. Environmental Chemistry, 12(5), 592. doi:10.1071/en14167

What can I do?

Best thing you can do:

Stop using plastics.

Second-best thing you can do:

Minimize your use of plastics.

The bare minimum:

Start being aware of the vast quantity of materials around you that are composed plastics.

Microplastic litter is a major issue that will take governments, corporations, and all of us working together to reduce our global reliance on plastic. You can do your part by re-assessing your personal use of plastic products, particularly single-use plastics like plastic water bottles and plastic bags. Some places to start might be, for example:

  • Wear natural fibres such as linen or cotton.
  • Drink from a reusable metal or glass water bottle.
  • Avoid single-use plastics such as dental floss picks.

The less plastic we produce, the less microplastics ultimately wind up in the air and in our bodies.

What about recycling?

Although you shouldn't stop recycling, you shouldn't depend on it either. Only a fraction of plastics can be recycled, and not all governments have plastic recycling regulated.