Really big systems, like ocean currents and weather, work on really big scales. And so too does your plastic waste, according to new research from Janice Brahney from the Department of Watershed Sciences. The plastic straw you discarded in 1980 hasn’t disappeared; it has fragmented into pieces too small to see, and is cycling through the atmosphere, infiltrating soil, ocean waters and air. Microplastics are so pervasive that they now affect how plants grow, waft through the air we breathe, and permeate distant ecosystems. They can be found in places as varied as the human bloodstream to the guts of insects in Antarctica.
Understanding how microplastics move through global systems is essential to fixing the problem, said Brahney. Her new research focuses on how these invisible pieces of plastic get into the atmosphere, how long they stay aloft, and where in our global system we can expect to find hotspots of microplastic deposition.