Microplastics may be having a moment in the spotlight, as the public is increasingly aware of their presence in the environment around us. But as more evidence of their presence comes to light, it’s becoming clearer that we don’t yet have a handle on how big or bad the problem is. A huge amount of small plastic particles end up in the sea, but recent research has also found them in in lakes and mountain river floodplains, and even as airborne pollution in megacities.
A new paper in Nature Geoscience reports finding microplastics in a region that should be pristine: the French Pyrenees mountains. The researchers estimated that the particles could have traveled from as far as 95 km away, but they suggest that it could be possible for microplastics to travel even further on the wind—meaning that even places relatively untouched by humans are now being polluted by our plastics.
The mystery of the disappearing plastic
Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic are produced. In 2016, this figure was estimated to be around 335 million tonnes. We have no idea where most of this ends up. The amounts that are recovered in recycling plants and landfill don't match the amount being produced. Some of it stays in use, sometimes for decades, which explains part of the discrepancy. An estimated 10 percent ends up in the oceans. Although these numbers could change with further research, there's still a gap.