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Brace for Impact: In the Atmosphere

Originally posted on on 5 November 2022

Next time you’re outside, take in a deep breath for me. What you breath in is about 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen – oh and an unknown amount of plastic. Yep, there’s plastic in our atmosphere now – microplastics to be specific. And it doesn’t matter where you live. From urban to rural, plastic has found its way into one of the fundamental needs of all humans – air.

Microplastics, pieces of plastic less than five millimeters in length, were discovered in the atmosphere in 2017 – and completely by accident. Biogeochemist Janice Brahney was researching phosphorus when she discovered large amounts of microplastics in her samples from remote locations. Specifically, she found fibers, spheres, and multi-colored pieces of plastic. Plastics that she later determined to have been placed there via the atmosphere. She came to this conclusion by working along-side Cornell University atmospheric scientist Natalie Mahowald. In Mahowald’s studies, she has been able to determine the route of microplastic based on weather patterns and air movement. It was discovered that at least for Brahney’s samples from the western U.S., those plastics most likely originated from roadways.

However, Brahney isn’t alone in her research. Other scientists have discovered plastics in remote places like the French Pyrenees, traveling there by way of our atmosphere. Additional research suggests that these plastics have been traveling this way for decades.

Aside from the general shock of plastics being in the air we breathe, their effects on nature are concerning. It is believed that these tiny pieces of plastic could start the formation of clouds – the effects of which are unknown. It is not a reach to assume that formations of extra clouds could affect soil, agriculture, and the land we live on, in a negative way.

What we do know is that plastic is raining on us from clouds. A study of rainwater over a 14-month period found that over 1,000 metric tons of microplastic particles were in 11 protected areas of the western U.S. For perspective, that’s about 120 million plastic water bottles worth of plastic found in rain.

These plastics could also mean increased trapping of the sun’s heat in our atmosphere – a direct contributor to climate change. As the sun’s rays enter our atmosphere it is possible that the heat will not be able to escape completely, simply because plastics in the atmosphere block it from doing so – along with greenhouse gasses, of course.

There is still so much we don’t know about the impacts of microplastics in our atmosphere because it is such a new field of study. But what we do know, isn’t good. Like plastic on land, in our rivers, and in our oceans, it all has an impact on the world around us and our way of life.

So, what can we do about it? 1. As always, reduce your plastic consumption, reuse what you can, recycle what is allowed, and secure your bins to avoid fly-away trash.

2. Participate in cleanups. This reduces the amount of plastic left in the elements that become microplastics.

3. Sign petitions that support the reduction of plastics in your local area, nationally, and globally. Sign Trash Pirate’s petition to tell your elected officials that you want to see change:

4. Tell companies, with your money and your voice, that you’re not interested in plastics and single-use items and that you want them to change. Learn how to write a polluter here:

5. Share this article with friends and family and tell them you’re going to reduce your consumption of single-use plastic and encourage them to do the same.


Author Bio Jenna is the founder of Official Trash Pirates, an organization that focuses on teaching

children and their families about the effects of litter and climate change on our world.

She hopes to get people of all ages involved in solving the litter crisis and empowering

young people to make a difference in their community. Beyond her work with Trash

Pirates, she is the mother of an eight-year-old boy and wife of an active-duty Air Force

service member.

Learn more about Official Trash Pirates at or on their various

social media platforms: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok


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