It's Raining Plastics

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 6, June 2020

By Lakshmy Raman

The first time I stood looking at one of the seven natural wonders of the world – one crafted by the powerful Colorado river – the Grand Canyon – I acknowledged that it deserved every paean ever written or sung in its name. The Grand Canyon’s foundations were laid more than 1,800 million years ago when volcanic islands violently collided with the developing North American continent. Millions of years later, the Colorado river made its way down toward the Gulf of California, triggering erosion and carving the canyon. There are few sights as spectacular as the Grand Canyon and, not surprisingly, it was designated a national monument in 1908 and a national park in 1919.

Standing there, one would be surprised to know that in such hallowed lands, a new enemy, invisible to the naked eye, is being deposited. And it is not just in the Grand Canyon; the enemy has been recorded in 11 major national parks in the western United States. Tiny plastic bits, or microplastics, less than five millimetres long, are blowing through the air and falling on land and water. And while the research study focused on pristine ecosystems in the United States, the lead author Janice Brahney, from Utah State University, believes that now “there’s no nook or cranny on the surface of the earth that won’t have microplastics.” Ironically, Brahney’s original study was about how dust-laden winds supply nutrients to remote ecosystems. The dust, she found, included thousands of multicoloured pieces of microplastic! One doesn’t need further proof for what has been said often enough – that plastic never truly disappears.

Brahney’s study placed collectors in the sample sites. A “wet” bucket was used to collect rainwater, and a “dry” bucket to collect air. Sensors were used to detect rainfall and open up the “wet” bucket while keeping the dry one shut. On sunny days, the dry bucket collected wind-borne particles while the wet bucket stayed shut. The researchers also tracked the origins of a rain storm to understand how far the particles may have travelled. Astonishingly, 98 percent of samples collected over a year had microplastic particles. The particles in the wet bucket were larger than those in the dry bucket deposited by wind. The smaller size of the dry bucket particles implied that they had been carried by winds over large distances, perhaps thousands of kilometres. This theory resonates with European scientists who have found that tiny pieces of plastic, such as synthetic fibers from clothes, are spreading from Europe to as far as the Arctic.

Microplastics result from the breakdown of larger plastics. Particles find their way into soil, water and air and are swept into areas far from where they originated. Brahney’s study, published in Science, reported that an estimated 132 pieces of microplastic fall on every square metre of protected wilderness every day, amounting to an astounding 1,000 metric tons of plastic rain each year. The study further reported that three-fourth of the microplastics collected were fine, dust-like particles and would have travelled long distances to reach the collection site. Plastic in other words – is the new acid rain! However, unlike acid rain, writes Matt Simon in WIRED – “there’s no way to scrub water or land or air of the particles – the stuff is absolutely everywhere, and it’s not like there’s a plastic magnet we can drag through the oceans. What makes plastic so useful – its hardiness – is what also makes it an alarming pollutant: Plastic never really goes away, instead breaking into ever smaller bits that infiltrate ever smaller corners of the planet.”

While the impact of such microplastics in the environment is still being studied, scientists have suggested that they can cross the membrane protecting the brain and that mothers could pass them through the placenta to a developing fetus. When chemicals in the plastic leach into the soil, they could change soil’s thermal properties, affect microbe communities and even serve as a conduit for bacteria and viruses. Some of these chemicals, such as bisphenol A and phthalates, interfere with hormones and yet others could cause cancer.

The task of controlling microplastics is not an easy one, given the ubiquity of plastic usage. The Obama administration had passed a ban on bottled water in 23 national parks, including the Grand Canyon, a decision that prevented up to two million plastic bottles from being used and discarded, equivalent to 50,685 kg. of plastic! However, the Trump administration has been quick to reverse the ban.

Environmental pollution knows no borders. Unless consumers come together to demand greater responsibility from industries in their use of plastic and support the implementation of innovative ways of sustainable packaging and recycling systems, we will continue to degrade and destroy the health of our planet and its inhabitants.

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