Airborne plastic a growing concern after mountain discovery – leader comment

The Pyrenees mountains are perhaps one of the last places to expect to find plastic pollution (Picture: iStock/Getty)
The Pyrenees mountains are perhaps one of the last places to expect to find plastic pollution (Picture: iStock/Getty)
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Scientists have discovered 365 tiny pieces of plastic per square metre in the Pyrenees mountains and proved “unequivocally” that it was blown there by the wind.

The world seems to have woken up to plastic pollution all of a sudden. After decades of using and then casually throwing away plastic, it is only in the past few years that we’ve really started to realise the extent of the problems this has been causing the natural world.

The BBC’s Blue Planet II programme takes much of the credit for helping people understand the devastating effects of plastic on marine life. Nearly nine out of every ten people who watched the documentary told pollsters they had changed their lifestyle as a result, for example by getting a refillable water bottle or using a travel mug for coffee.

But scientists are still uncovering more evidence of the harm caused by plastic. An emerging area of concern is the presence of tiny plastic particles – invisible to the naked eye – in the air.

A new study by researchers at Strathclyde University and colleagues in France found an average of 365 pieces of plastic per square metre of ground in a remote region of the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain.

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The researchers said their discovery was “astounding and worrying” given the remoteness of the site, adding that they had proved “unequivocally” that the particles had been blown there by the wind.

So, most depressingly, breathing in the apparently fresh mountain air of an apparently pristine wilderness carries a risk of inhaling tiny pieces of plastic. We are creating a world of sinister, hidden dangers.

In 2016, Professor Frank Kelly, of King’s College London, told a Commons committee that breathing in plastic particles could “potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation”, comparing this to the health effects of vehicle emissions.

However, plastics have become a vital part of our economy and everyday lives. Supply chains rely on plastic packaging to keep food fresh and this most malleable material has a host of other uses. So there is almost no chance that we can kick our plastic habit anytime soon.

But it is clear that the world needs to get much better at dealing with waste plastic to ensure it does not spill out into the natural world. This is something the plastics industry itself should be urgently investigating – given a Blue Planet III about plastic in the air could further swing the public mood against their products.

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