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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
② 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.
⑦ (TEGNA), Author: Travis Pittman. “1,000 Tons of Plastic Rain Is Falling across the US.” wusa9.Com, 13 June 2020, www.wusa9.com/article/news/nation-world/plastic-rain-protected-wildnerness/507-88434116-79bd-461c-bea6-69bdf71906de.(Available in the U.S. only)
⑧ 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
⑨ 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
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:
The less plastic we produce, the less microplastics ultimately wind up in the air and in our bodies.
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.