Studying a high-altitude area of the Pyrenees – a mountain range that forms a natural border between France and Spain – researchers found that 365 tiny bits of plastic appear in each square meter of land every single day. Despite the fact that the area studied is devoid of human life, this amount of microplastic pollution is comparable to what you’d see in a city like Paris.
The sampled area is 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the nearest village, and over 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the nearest city.
"We would never have anticipated that this study would reveal such high levels of microplastic deposits," study co-author Gael Le Roux of Toulouse’s EcoLab told AFP.
"It is astounding and worrying that so many particles were found in the Pyrenees field site," added lead author Steve Allen of the University of Strathclyde.
The study took place over a five-month period in 2017 and 2018 and the findings are published in Nature Geoscience. The researchers focused their attention on teeny pieces of plastic ranging from 10 to 150 micrometers in width. For scale, a human hair measures about 70 micrometers in width.
So, how did the microplastics make it to the mountains? It seems they traveled through the air. This means that plastic particles released by human activity can hitchhike their way to seemingly pristine parts of the world via the wind.
"Our most significant finding is that microplastics are transported through the atmosphere and deposited in a remote, high-altitude mountain location far from any major city," co-author Deonie Allen told AFP. "This means that microplastics are an atmospheric pollutant."
By looking at airflow patterns, the researchers determined that some of the mountain microplastics had wafted as far as 100 kilometers (62 miles) to reach their destination. This suggests microplastics could be finding their way to all sorts of remote areas uninhabited by humans.
“This study is the first to provide concrete evidence of microplastics transported to remote regions by air, and therefore enhances our understanding of the ways in which microplastics can be widely transported around the globe,” Alice Horton, an ecotoxicologist at the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology who was not involved in the research, told the Science Media Centre.
“Concentrations found in this study were comparable to those found within urban areas which highlights that with respect to microplastics, many remote areas may not be as pristine as assumed, a fact which warrants further research.”
The researchers reckon the culprit behind this microplastic pollution is single-use plastics – things like straws, plastic bottles, and Q-tips that we use once and then throw out. To protect the environment – whether it’s an underwater world or a mountain peak – we need to reduce our plastic waste. And fast.
Luckily things are changing, with many governments, the UN, and the EU attempting to tackle plastic waste, and Blue Planet II bringing the problem to the public’s attention (half of people say they now use less plastic thanks to the show), but there’s still more to be done.