Plastic dust is blowing into U.S. national parks—more than 1000 tons each year

Remote wilderness areas and national parks in the western United States are getting a dusting of plastic every year, perhaps 1000 tons or more, according to a new study. Up to one-quarter of the microscopic pieces of plastic—which come from carpets, clothing, and even spray paint—may originate in storms passing over nearby cities, whereas the rest likely comes from farther flung locations. The findings, the first to tease apart geographic origins, add to mounting evidence that such microplastic pollution is common worldwide.

“We created something that won’t go away,” says Janice Brahney, a biogeochemist at Utah State University and lead author on the new paper. “It’s now circulating around the globe.”

Brahney didn’t set out to track plastic pollution. Instead, she wanted to study how wind-blown dust delivers nutrients to ecosystems. So, she set up a pilot study with the National Atmospheric Deposition Program to collect such dust at a network of weather stations usually used to sample rainwater across the United States, mostly in remote locations.

Looking at samples from 11 remote areas in the western United States, including the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park, Brahney noticed brightly colored fragments under the microscope. “I realized that I was looking at deposition of plastics, which was really shocking.” Brahney didn’t have funding to study microplastic pollution, so she did the analysis on her own time, spending a “very long and stressful year” of evenings and weekends counting nearly 15,000 tiny pieces—most of them less than one-third the width of a human hair.

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