Every year, more than 1,000 tons of plastic rain down onto national parks and wilderness areas in the western U.S. In this week’s episode, we talk about where that plastic comes from, and we look for it in rain that falls on Washington, D.C.
Today, I woke up, it was raining, and so I decided, hey, let’s go collect some rainwater and see if there’s plastic in it.
Alrighty, the world produces around 350 million tons of plastic every year, and around 90% of that plastic isn’t or can’t be recycled.
It needs to go somewhere, and that somewhere is actually everywhere.
You get something made of plastic and when you’re done with it there’s a good chance it’ll end up in a landfill or somewhere else where it’s not being recycled or repurposed.
Over time it breaks apart. And by breaks apart, I don’t mean breaks down and becomes one with the earth. I mean it fragments. It just keeps getting smaller and smaller but never fully disappears.
This breaking apart can be caused by physical abrasion, like wear and tear from being outdoors, but also things like ultraviolet light from the sun, which you can help generate free radicals that cause breaks in the bonds between polymers in the plastic.
These little fragmented pieces are microplastics, and they’ve been found in almost every ecosystem on our planet, from the bottom of the ocean, to the Arctic, to mountain ranges in Europe.
Microplastics range from less than a nanometer, which is smaller than the diameter of a strand of DNA, to around five millimeters, which is the size of an eraser head.
You’ll be able to spot the bigger microplastics by eye, maybe in the sand at the beach, but the teeny tiny ones can get into our atmosphere, usually lofted it into the air by wind.
And once they’re there, they can go anywhere, including in the stuff that falls from the sky, like snow or rain.
A recent study found that more than 1,000 tons of microplastics, that’s more than 100 million plastic water bottles worth of plastic, rains down onto national parks and wilderness in the Western U.S. each year.
But what about in Washington, D.C.? Does it rain plastic here? I wanted to find out.
So, after collecting some rain, I decided to check it out under a microscope.
So, that could be a microplastic, but to be honest I have absolutely no idea what I’m looking for.
So, Christine Knauss helped me out by giving me some microplastic samples. She’s a researcher at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, studying plastic pollution and how it’s affecting animals in the Chesapeake Bay.
Oh yes! There we go.
So there is a six micron microbead, there’s one, there’s one, there’s one. There are tons of these tiny, tiny microplastics that are called microbeads, and so these are a form of primary microplastic.
So they were created to be this small, and they used to be in a ton of cosmetic products. I remember buying face wash that had microbeads in it. But then five, six years ago, they were banned. They’re still used in industry and commercial products, and we’re still finding them in our waterways.
Okay, let’s move on.
These are secondary microplastics. So these came from a larger piece of plastic.
Christine gave us a ton of good stuff to look at. You know, you start off at a landfill, you have a bunch of different types of plastic, and they can break down into a bunch of different looking microplastics.
So in addition to the primary and secondary microplastics that I just mentioned, you have microfibers, and those will usually come from, you know, your clothes or nets to catch fish.
So this is an example of a microfiber.
So, I have a couple of samples here from Jesse Meiller’s lab at American University.
These microplastics are from around D.C. So this is actually from a tributary that leads to the Anacostia River. So this is filter paper that about like 200 milliliters worth of water has actually been filtered through.
The other thing she told me was that I have to be careful to not keep this open to the air for too long because there’s so many microplastics around us, and, you know, when the AC comes on, or whatever, it might be that it’s really easy to contaminate this.
That totally looks like it could be a microplastic.
Now that I know what microplastics look like, I’m gonna try this rainwater again, but seeing how much stuff was on that filter paper gave me an idea.
Now, I don’t happen to have a Buchner funnel lying around at home, but I do have my AeroPress coffee brewer. I also should say that this AeroPress is made out of plastic.
Ee! There’s things.
It’s kinda hard to tell because the filter paper isn’t dry yet.
Ew, what is that?
So I found something, but before we pull up the microscope footage to see if my local rain has plastic in it, does it matter? Should we care?
The long and short of it is yes, I should definitely care because microplastics can have a lot of things in them and on them that are bad.
DDT, for example, is one of the things that will stick to microplastics.
Not all places in the world have banned DDT, plus it sticks around for years, and even when it does break down, its breakdown products are also toxic and they’ll accumulate through a process called biomagnification.
So say a fish eats some microplastics that have DDT on them. And then a bigger fish eats that fish along with a bunch of other fish that have DDT in them. Then we eat that big fish. We’re getting all of that built-up DDT.
In terms of things in microplastics, you have chemicals like phthalates that are added to plastics to make them more flexible, or compounds like bisphenol A, or BPA, that’s used to make hard, clear plastics.
Both phthalates and BPA are endocrine disruptors, just like DDT.
Right now, we don’t have data from humans saying microplastics cause X, but there’s a ton of research going on to figure out what these bits of plastic and the stuff that they bring with them are doing to us.
So yeah, we should care. I care, which is why I’m running out in the middle of a rainstorm to collect samples.
Ew, what is that?
There’s a ton of stuff on this piece of filter paper, which I wasn’t totally expecting.
Even though a lot of it could be contamination, this to me looks like a microplastic, which is a reminder that we’re surrounded by this stuff all the time.