In a report detailing their findings, the team found nine different types of polymer particles present and also a type of rubber particle.
Hiroshi Okochi, Professor at Waseda University, who led the study, commented on the scale and danger of the situation: “Microplastics in the free troposphere are transported and contribute to global pollution. If the issue of plastics air pollution is not addressed proactively, climate change and ecological risks may become a reality, causing irreversible and serious environmental damage in the future.”
The study saw scientists scale both Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama in Japan, along with cloud water taken from the south-eastern foothills of Mount Fuji (Tarobo). Water was collected from the clouds there and, with the use of powerful imaging technology, samples were taken and closely examined.
Results included both polymers and rubber in airborne microplastics. The areas where samples were collected are at altitudes ranging between 1,300 and 3,776 metres.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics can be defined as small plastic pieces that measure less than five millimetres. They are sometimes intentionally made — for example microbeads in facial scrubs or for industrial purposes.
However, they can also be formed from larger plastics such as carrier bags after fragmenting. This happens because natural processes such as sunlight cause the plastic to become brittle, fragment and break.
Why are microplastics a problem?
“With every new piece of scientific research, the scale and impact of plastic pollution become ever more glaring. We are eating, drinking and breathing microplastics; they are raining down on us and are even found in breast milk and fed to our children.” – World Economic Forum
Microplastics are considered by many to be a huge man-made problem. They are now present in some of the furthest reaches of the world, and also in the food we eat and the water we drink.
They present a health problem to humans in three ways: physical, chemical and as an area for microorganisms to breed on. It has also been estimated that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the sea than fish.
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A major issue with these microplastics is that they do not biodegrade, and instead accumulate in various environments. At the moment there are no specific EU laws that comprehensively cover microplastics.
Although efforts are underway, a study in the publication National Geographic states that 91% of plastic is not recycled. And if it does not get recycled or naturally degrade, then the question must be asked — where does it go?
To make matters worse, these plastics are dispersed by wind and ocean tides, travelling to all parts of the globe. The finding that they can now be found in clouds is the latest worrying development.
Microplastics and climate change
With the recent findings that microplastics are present even in clouds, there are now fears that microplastics could contribute to the climate crisis. The theory is that the polymers could act as condensation nuclei of cloud ice and water. These are vital for the formation of clouds, an abundance of which could affect climate change.
Plastic pollution of the oceans could also lead to climate change: as When they slowly degrade, they release greenhouse gases.
What can be done?
According to a report by the World Economic Forum: “Key to tackling the problem of plastic is establishing a circular economy. Plastic that can’t be eliminated from the system needs to be reusable, recyclable or compostable. This requires significant investment in collection and reprocessing infrastructure.”
There are steps that ordinary consumers can take too, such as avoiding products with Microbeads such as facial scrubs and certain toothpastes. Properly disposing of plastic waste instead of dumping it in landfill or worst of all directly into the sea could help.
Overall, although the findings in Japan are the latest in a worrying trend showing the extent of the microplastic problem, moves are being made that could help solve it. Governments internationally are taking measures to reduce plastic pollution. The public should support legislation that bans single-use plastics and encourages recycling.
There is also scientific research being done that might lead to new technologies that can help reduce microplastic pollution in the future.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Tiny microplastics. Featured Photo Credit: Utah State University.