Scientists have found tiny plastic particles in rainwater samples taken from the Rocky Mountains.

Their discovery, set out in a new US Geological Survey (USGS) study titled It is Raining Plastic, adds to growing evidence that microplastics are polluting some of the remotest places on Earth, from the deep ocean to mountaintops.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

The study’s lead author Gregory Wetherbee, a USGS research chemist, told The Guardian he had been collecting rainwater samples in Colorado to study nitrogen pollution.

To his surprise, when he analyzed the samples under a microscope he found more than 90% of them contained multicoloured plastic fibres, as well as tiny beads and shards.

The samples came from eight sites along Colorado’s Front Range, varying from urban areas around Denver and Boulder to a spot 3,159 metres above sea level in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Photomicrographs of plastics collected at sites in the Rocky Mountains.
Photomicrographs of plastics collected at sites in the Rocky Mountains.
Image: USGS

The USGS scientists aren’t certain how the bits of plastic got into Colorado’s rainwater, but they called for better methods for measuring microplastics and their potential effects on plant and animal life.

Microplastics are everywhere

Microplastics – defined as less than 5 millimetres long – have been found in marine ecosystems, waste and fresh water, the air, food and in the stomachs of animals and people.

Scientists estimate the average American may be eating 50,000 tiny plastic particles a year, and inhaling around the same amount again, although the potential health effects of this are not yet clearly understood. The World Health Organization has called for more research into their impact, while noting that they don't appear to post a health risk at current levels.

Some microplastics are released directly into the environment as tiny particles: for example, microfibres from clothing, fragments from car tyres and microbeads in facial scrubs. Others originate from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as bags and bottles.


What is Loop?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The World Economic Forum has played a crucial role in connecting TerraCycle, a global waste management and recycling company, with logistics giant UPS and some of the world’s leading retailers and consumer goods companies (including Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Carrefour, Tesco, Mondelēz, PepsiCo, Danone, Mars, Nestlé and Unilever) to develop and pilot a revolutionary zero-waste e-commerce system called Loop.

Loop promotes responsible consumption and eliminates waste by introducing a new way for consumers to purchase, enjoy and recycle their favorite products. Instead of relying on single-use packaging, it delivers products to consumers’ doorsteps in durable packaging that is collected, cleaned, refilled and reused, sometimes more than 100 times.

The Loop Model.
The Loop Model.

The Forum is helping the Loop Alliance bring the Loop model to cities around the world. Read more in our Impact Story.

Partner with us and join the global mission to end plastic pollution.

Earlier this year, researchers discovered microplastics in a remote area of the French Pyrenees mountain range. Though unable to pinpoint the source of the contamination, the study showed the particles may have travelled over a distance of up to 95 km.

As well as being found in remote parts of the Pyrenees and the Rockies, microplastics are turning up in other areas considered to be pristine wilderness, such as in Arctic sea ice and even in the Mariana Trench, 7,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.