New Zealand scientists have found that microplastics have a direct impact on global warming. They published the first study linking airborne plastic fragments and fibers to climate change Wednesday. They also found that microplastics, which have been widely detected on land and in rivers and oceans, are detrimental to health.
This is the first study to investigate the effects of airborne microplastics on climate. The plastic fragments and fibers are carried by the wind. Microplastics are created by the breakdown of carpets, clothing and paint, as well as tires and larger plastics that degrade over time.
Researchers in New Zealand have found that for now, their influence on climate change is small. But if the global average concentration of microplastics increases to levels already seen in some cities, the impact “will be significant,” they say.
Laura Revell, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said the airborne particles do affect the environment.
"They are good at scattering solar radiation, or sunlight, back to space, which causes a minor cooling influence on Earth’s climate, and they also are quite good at absorbing the infrared radiation that is emitted by the Earth, which means they also contribute to the greenhouse effect," she said. "But overall, it is that interaction with sunlight that plays out. So, overall, they have a very, very small cooling influence on Earth’s climate."
Revell said laboratory studies have shown that microplastics can damage lung tissue. Aquatic organisms such as zooplankton can also mistake the plastic for food, which can interfere with the ocean’s carbon cycle, where carbon is recycled naturally by the environment.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to get the idea that this is actually a good thing in terms of climate change and that they are offsetting the effects of greenhouse gas warming because, for a start, the effect is very small in the present day and then there are also these other damaging effects to humans and to other ecosystems.”
Researchers have estimated that globally, 5 billion tons of plastic waste have accumulated in landfills and the natural environment to date. They have warned that amount could double over the next 30 years if current trends in plastic production and waste management continue.
The research is a collaboration between New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and Victoria University of Wellington.
It is published in the leading scientific journal Nature.