Some might have to try a little harder than others, such is the respective time difference since our years of formal education, but most can probably remember the phrase ‘hydrological cycle’.
For those not interested in playing along, this is another name for the water cycle. Simply put, it’s the process by which water is evaporated from lakes, rivers and oceans to become clouds. Clouds move over higher ground, where they cool and condense until they release rain, which ultimately makes its way back to the lakes, etc.
Keep that in mind, we'll loop back around a little later.
Just a few days ago, a team from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) released a report covering the discovery of microplastics in water samples collected in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
According to published details, microplastics were found in more than 90% of the samples. To highlight the pervasive nature of the plastic particles, some samples were taken at high altitude, in one case more than 3,000m (3,159m, to be exact).
The samples contained microfibres in a variety of colours - predominantly blue, but also red, silver, purple and green. In addition, tiny microbeads and plastic shards were also detected in the water samples.
The majority of these microplastics are thought to come from clothes, sheared off garments as they go through the wash cycle and then flooded through water purification plants which do not have filtration systems fine enough to capture the particles.
After being released, it’s thought that the microplastics became part of the hydrological cycle, picked up in the evaporation process to form clouds, which then carry the condensate (and particles) over the Rocky Mountains.
The plastics found were invisible to the naked eye (they were observed at magnifications between 20 and 40x), yet their prevalence is a concern. Both in the quantity of samples which contained the particles, but also in the geographic range.
The report concluded that ‘better methods for sampling, identification, and quantification of plastic deposition along with assessment of potential ecological effects are needed’. That balanced review, though, was prefaced with the more inflammatory, ‘It is raining plastic’.
Efforts are now being made to reduce the amount of visible plastic in the ocean, both intercepting material before it reaches the water and removing what is already there.
This has also prompted the commercial launch of various new products. But it’s clear that the plastics industry was largely caught off guard by the ferocity of the public backlash after the broadcast of the Blue Planet programme.
At the same time, it’s clear that similar efforts must be made to stop the flow of microplastics entering the environment.
It is up to the wider polymer market to address this situation proactively and have a working solution in hand before a second plastics backlash comes to pass. Or deal with the consequences.