Sea Spray Is Full of Microplastics

That ocean breeze could be returning 136,000 tonnes of plastic to land per year.

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You know that feeling of standing on the edge of the ocean and feeling the bubbly, salty spray hitting your face? It's invigorating and refreshing, but unfortunately there's more than just water, salt, the usual bacteria and the odd bit of algae thrown in. There's also a significant amount of microplastics.

This distressing discovery was made by researchers from the University of Strathclyde and the Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées at the University of Toulouse, whose findings were published recently in the journal PLOS One. Using a "cloud catcher" set on top of a sand dune, they captured sea spray from Mimizan Beach in Aquitaine, France, which lies along the Bay of Biscay.

The Guardian reported, "They analysed the water droplets for microplastics, sampling various wind directions and speeds, including a storm and sea fog. The sea fog generated by the surf produced the highest counts, of 19 plastic particles per cubic metre of air."

This partially explains the mystery of where ocean plastic goes. We know that roughly 8 million tonnes of plastic enters ocean waters annually, as large solid pieces of waste, wastewater from laundering synthetic clothing, and spills of plastic pellets used to make new plastic products, but only 240,000 tonnes is estimated to float on the surface of the water. Now the researchers calculate that as much as 136,000 tonnes of microplastics could be returned to land by sea spray every year. The study's lead co-author Dr. Deonie Allen explained why this discovery is important:

"The transport mechanism is quite complicated. We know plastic comes out of rivers into the sea. Some goes into gyres, some sinks and goes into the sediment, but the quantity on the sea floor doesn’t match the amount of plastic that would make up this equation. There’s a quantity of missing plastic... We know plastic moves in the atmosphere, we know it moves in water. Now we know it can come back. It is the first opening line of a new discussion."

It's a grim opening line, for sure, but it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has kept up with microplastics research in recent years. The tiny contaminants have been found everywhere from the High Arctic, remote mountaintops and rivers, and the bottom of the Mariana Trench, to groundwater, tap water, human stool, insects, and household dust. And now the sea breeze, too.

Hopefully this will motivate people to change their consumer habits, to prioritize zero waste shopping while pressuring retailers and brands to change their packaging. It's more urgent than ever, especially since plastic packaging waste has surged recently. We cannot be complacent because this inundation isn't going to stop on its own.