Protected parcels of lands and waters—often dubbed parks, reserves or sanctuaries—are critical conservation zones that not only sustain vibrant plant and animal communities but also inspire visitors to explore and steward some of the world’s most exceptional places. There are currently about 4,000 land-based National Parks worldwide, including 419 in the United States and; along our coasts and in our oceans, there are more than 17,000 protected ocean areas worldwide and around 1,700 in the United States. All of these exceptional areas face threats as global climate changes and human-caused influences become more pronounced. Plastic pollution in the environment is one of those threats.
Scientists recently discovered that tiny plastic shards and threads called microplastics can be transported thousands of kilometers around the globe by wind or flowing water. When airborne, those particles are carried on a breeze to the most remote corners of the earth like alpine glaciers or coral reef atolls, or even accidentally inhaled by beach-dwelling humans or land-dwelling animals. Last month, a research group investigating the presence of microplastics in 11 of the western United States’ National Parks revealed these pesky airborne plastics are deposited from the sky onto parklands at staggering rates. More than 1,000 metric tons—roughly the weight of 1,000 elephants—fall onto the 11 National Parks studied each year! While a large proportion of microplastics are generated on land (shed from clothing, disintegrated from littered plastic items), they travel to the sea where they become available for marine organisms to encounter and possibly eat. In fact, about 700 species are known to consume large or micro-sized plastics in the environment. The known number of species impacted by plastics grows daily with new scientific research; however, ocean animals found with microplastics in their guts and tissues include seafood items like fish and shellfish–important protein sources for marine mammals and people around the globe. As a scientist actively researching microplastics in bivalves, I find there is still much to learn about the prevalence of microplastics in marine organisms (such as those harvested in North American commercial fisheries), and their impacts on ecosystems, fisheries and human seafood consumers.
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While we don’t know the extent of microplastic fallout onto protected open coast or ocean areas, one recent study discovered the ocean spits out some microplastics in the form of sea spray, forcing once-waterborne plastic pieces back into the air. This transfer of microplastics from ocean to the atmosphere may account for more than 100,000 tons of plastic blowing ashore every year. This loop of microplastics becoming airborne, falling into water bodies or onto lands and being resuspended in the air is now part of what is dubbed the global plastic cycle.
Help protect National Parks, marine protected areas and other incredible places around the world without even leaving your home! You can help reduce your contributions to microplastics in the environment by simply adjusting your household laundering habits. Did you know one load of synthetic laundry can create millions of microplastics? Washing clothing at colder temperatures and on gentle cycles, and using microfiber catchments in our washing machines such as guppy bags or machine filters can help prevent many of those microplastic fibers from being shed and carried in wastewater out into the environment to become airborne. Let’s not allow the microplastics we generate at home become “dust” in the wind!