From creeks to clouds: The invisible invasion of microplastics

From creeks to clouds: The invisible invasion of microplastics

From creeks to clouds: The invisible invasion of microplastics

Plastic pollution may be harming humans and marine life, and could be changing the weather.

This is a picture of Marsh Creek, a Neuse River tributary. The device in the middle of the river is a cage made of PVC and mesh netting. The cage is floating on the water and contains trapped plastic waste — bottles, Styrofoam cups, etc.
The “trash trap” is in Marsh Creek, a Neuse River tributary. Researchers and riverkeepers collect data on how much and what types of debris are deposited in waterways across the state. If not removed, many of these items will break down into tiny particles known as microplastics. Credit: Barbara Doll

By Will Atwater

Judging by recent developments, microplastics have risen to the status of supervillain. Reports about these new anti-heros read almost like celebrity sightings. The tiny particles are everywhere: in water, on land, on mountaintops, in humans and animals — and even in the clouds.

Microplastic compounds are defined as being less than 5 mm long, which is slightly larger than a sesame seed, but many microplastic particles are much smaller. These substances can last hundreds, even thousands of years in the environment. Globally, more than 430 million tons of plastic is produced annually. Some plastics break down into these microplastic particles, and a significant amount of them end up in the ocean, where marine animals swallow them and they enter the food chain, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme.


Chatter about the need for regulations to reduce the proliferation of this problem is growing louder by the day as reports about the adverse health and environmental impacts of microplastics have started piling up.

In November, researchers published studies suggesting more potential risks of microplastic exposure for humans, including a Duke-led study that suggests links between nanoplastic particles and a brain protein that may result in increased risk for Parkinson’s disease and some forms of dementia.

“Our study suggests that the emergence of micro and nanoplastics in the environment might represent a new toxin challenge with respect to Parkinson’s disease risk and progression,” said lead researcher Andrew West, from the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke’s school of medicine. “This is especially concerning, given the predicted increase in concentrations of these contaminants in our water and food supplies.”

Previous studies have revealed that humans ingest about a credit card-size amount of microplastics weekly and suggested links between microplastic ingestion in people and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. There’s also some suggestion that microplastics alter how hormones function in the body.


Moreover, in October, the Guardian reported that Japanese researchers found microplastic particles in cloud formations around Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama. Researchers said that they found nine types of microplastics in cloud water, such as polyethylene (which composes plastic bags, food and drink containers), polypropylene (which makes up high heat tolerance plastics, cleaning products, pill bottles) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET/disposable drink bottles), among others.

The researchers said their “findings suggest that high-altitude microplastics particles influence cloud formation and, in turn, might modify the climate.”

A muliticolored infographic illustrates how airborne microplastics influence cloud formation and climate change. The poster is divided into 3 sections, depicting how tiny plastic particles migrate from water surfacs to clouds.
New research suggests that microplastics are carried from water surfaces to clouds through the evaporation process. Credit: WASEDA University

One step forward, two steps back?

Environmentalists have sounded the alarm about the proliferation of single-use plastics for years and, to be fair, some government agencies and municipalities are making changes. In the United States, 10 states and Puerto Rico have banned single-use plastic bags.

As of June 2023, Surfrider, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that works to reduce the impact of plastic debris on beaches and oceans, “identified 491 U.S. local single-use bag ordinances.”

Additionally, the third meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) took place in Nairobi, Kenya, earlier this month to continue work toward a treaty to reduce plastic pollution. A fourth round of talks (INC-4) is scheduled to take place in 2024.

“I am encouraged by the forward motion of the negotiations towards a treaty that ends plastic pollution,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, according to a release. He noted the INC’s “determination to get to the finish line and put us on course for a world where plastic pollution is a problem of the past.”

But not all attendees were as encouraged as Andersen.

Neil Tangri is the senior research fellow at the University of California-Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and the founder of GAIA, an environmental advocacy group working to promote zero-waste cities. Tangri was disappointed that microplastics “were hardly addressed” at INC-3, he said by email.

“There is a widespread recognition of the need to ban primary microplastics (e.g., beads in personal care products and detergents),” he said in an email to NC Health News. “This is really low-hanging fruit and beyond obvious; many jurisdictions have already done so, but we need a global ban. But some countries are arguing that plastic production is out of scope of the treaty — which would mean that we couldn’t ban particular products such as primary microplastics.”

“Of course, the vast majority of microplastics in the environment are the result of physical breakdown of plastic products — e.g., tire wear or macroplastic waste that breaks down in the marine environment. Again, if we exclude production from the scope of the treaty — meaning we can’t reformulate plastic products to minimize microplastic generation, or ban the items most likely to end up in the environment — we end up with a waste management treaty, and there is no effective waste management solution to microplastics.”

Is it enough to move the needle at home?

While work is underway to reduce plastic pollution, North Carolina has yet to establish any regulations on plastic bags — despite the efforts of environmentalists.

The momentum gained by North Carolina advocates working to curb the use of single-use plastic bags in Durham, Boone and Asheville screeched to a halt in September when a provision in House Bill 259 that prohibits local municipalities from establishing plastic bag ordinances became part of the state budget.

Ways to address the problem

  • Require stronger regulations around the production and distribution of single-use plastics.
  • Improve the nation’s recycling system to reduce the amount of plastic going into the waste stream.
  • Demand more transparency in the recycling system.
  • Induce industry to create more biodegradable products.
  • Encourage consumers to invest in recyclable/reusable products.
  • Elect officials who support plastic waste-reduction initiatives.

Efforts to establish a plastic bag ordinance have been a polarizing topic since 2009 when former Democratic state Sen. Marc Basnight of Dare County introduced legislation that called for a ban on single-use plastic bags in retail stores in Outer Banks communities. Basnight’s family runs a restaurant in Nags Head, and the late senator was deeply involved in the coast’s tourism industry.

The legislation passed, and a ban was set in place from 2009 until 2017, when a Republican-led legislature repealed it. Critics argued that the ban unfairly taxed merchants who had to offer $.05 cent refunds or other incentives for customers who shopped with reusable bags. They also argued that paper bags were worse for the environment than plastic.

More data, more awareness

In 2022, some North Carolina riverkeepers began installing trash traps in creeks and streams to count and categorize pollution that collects there. A public dashboard contains data on debris removed from 11 waterways across the state, according to dashboard producer Nancy Lauer, a Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic staff scientist. The dashboard is on the Haw River Assembly website.

“The trash traps are important because they physically trap trash before it moves downstream, but when we can also collect data on what the traps are capturing, we are better equipped to keep the trash out of the waterways to begin with,” Lauer said. “The data tells us what plastics are frequently getting into waterways and what the sources of those escaped plastics might be.”

The image is a pie chart that displays percentages of plastic debris that was found in Durham's Third Fork Creek. Styrofoam particles, highlighted in a light blue color, made up the largest amount at 82 percent.
The pie chart represents debris captured by a trash trout placed in Durham’s Third Fork Creek from June 2022 to November 2023. Trash traps collect litter that floats downstream and are good at collecting buoyant plastics, like water bottles and Styrofoam. Other plastics- like bags and food wrappers – are still very commonly found in the streams but get snagged or lodged with sediment. Bags and food wrappers aren’t routinely captured by the trash trap, according to Nancy Lauer, Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic staff scientist. Credit: Nancy Lauer

For instance, volunteers removed nearly 40,000 pieces of litter from Durham’s Third Fork Creek from June 2022 to November 2023. Of that amount, 82 percent of the debris was Styrofoam fragments, followed by plastic bottles.

Data collected from Boone’s Winkler Creek from June 2021 to February 2023 shows that volunteers removed 8,000 pieces of debris, and Styrofoam fragments comprised 72 percent of the trash.

The amount of Styrofoam fragments found in the two creeks alone is a concern to West because, in the Parkinson’s disease study, he and colleagues discovered that polystyrene, the source material for Styrofoam, bonded aggressively with a brain protein known as alpha-synuclein.

“Charged polystyrene contaminants are among the most toxic in the biological systems we use to study these diseases,” West said.

“Whether it’s lead pipes or different types of toxins that we find out later do more harm than good, I could certainly imagine polystyrene being added to that list as we [discover] what these particles can do,” he said.

The image is a multicolored infographic that explains how plastic pollution breaks down into tiny particles known as microplastics. Different items on the infographic have been found in the Neuse River Basin. The items include plastic food wrappers, bags, cups and Styrofoam.
The image is a multicolored infographic that explains how plastic pollution breaks down into tiny particles known as microplastics. Different items on the infographic have been found in the Neuse River Basin. The items include plastic food wrappers, bags, cups and Styrofoam. Credit: Courtesy of N.C. State University

Barbara Doll, N.C. State University associate extension professor and North Carolina Sea Grant specialist, co-authored a study that looked at the distribution and characteristics of microplastics found in the Neuse River Basin.

“When we looked at the microplastics [and] characterized them for type, our main microplastic components were polystyrene, polypropylene, and PET (plastic bottles),” Doll said. “There’s a link [between] the garbage and the microplastic types.”

How it Works

Barbara Doll, N.C. State University associate extension professor and North Carolina Sea Grant specialist, explains how plastic pollution becomes microplastics compounds over time:

“Trash gets into the water, and it starts to break down and degrade by sunlight, by being banged around in the river, up against the river’s bottom, branches, limbs and rocks. It starts to break apart and become smaller and smaller fragments. It doesn’t go away; it just continues to break down.”

One of Doll’s goals through her research is to raise awareness.

“I wanted to establish that [microplastics] are coming from the garbage that everyone is throwing out of their car window on the ground or is blowing out of trash cans — this incredible prevalence of plastic in our everyday lives,” she said. “[It’s like], ‘Hey, this is what’s getting washed in the streams, floating through small creeks, down the river and getting out into our food resource.”

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