Diplomats from 175 countries gathered in Paris for talks on the plastics treaty on Monday might want to bring an umbrella, but not just because there’s a chance of rain.
France’s capital will also be flooded during the five-day talks by billions of microplastic particles falling from the sky, according to the first weather forecast on plastic pollution.
Predicted rainfall varies between 40 and 48 kilograms (88 and 106 pounds) of free-floating pieces of plastic covering greater Paris every 24 hours, the scientists involved told AFP.
If the weather brings heavy rain, the “plastic fall” is likely to increase up to tenfold.
“This should sharpen the focus of negotiators,” said Marcus Gover, head of plastics research at the Minderoo Foundation based in Perth, Australia.
“Plastic particles break down in the environment and this toxic cocktail ends up in our bodies, causing unimaginable harm to our health.”
Concern about the impact of plastics on the environment and human well-being has increased in recent years, along with a growing body of research documenting their ubiquity and persistence.
In nature, multicolored microplastics – by definition, less than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) in diameter – have been found in ice near the North Pole and inside fish that navigate the deepest, darkest recesses of the oceans.
Plastic debris is estimated to kill more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, and filter-eating blue whales consume up to 10 million pieces of microplastic. every day.
‘Head in the sand’
A garbage truck’s worth of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean every minute.
In humans, microscopic pieces of plastic have been detected in blood, breast milk and placentas.
Animal testing has linked chemicals in microplastics to increased risks of cancer, reproductive problems and DNA mutations, but data on the human impact is still lacking.
“In our bodies, the plastics we most need to be concerned about are probably those between 10 nanometers and 1 micrometer,” said pediatrician Christos Symeonides, a researcher at Murdoch Children’s Research Hospital and the Minderoo Foundation.
“They are the ones most likely to cross our biological membranes into tissues, including the blood-brain barrier,” he told AFP.
“We are only now pulling our heads out of the sand when it comes to the health risks of microplastics.”
The forecast for Paris next week only covers significantly larger particles, mostly synthetic fibers at least 50 microns in length.
For reference, a human hair is about 80 microns (or 80,000 nanometers) in diameter.
The method developed by Minderoo Foundation researchers does not measure plastic falling into the atmosphere in real time.
Instead, it’s based on research done in Paris starting in 2015, which collected samples from various locations throughout the year and analyzed them in the lab.
This pioneering work by French scientists found that most of the plastic particles that fell into Paris’ 2,500 square kilometers (965 square miles) catchment were nylon and polyester, likely from clothing.
Other chunks were shed by tires, which shed mainly when vehicles braked.
Over the course of an entire year, up to 10 tonnes of microplastic fibers settle in the Paris area, they estimated.
The density of the “plastic drop” can increase by an order of magnitude during heavy rainfall.
Measurements by other teams replicated these findings in half a dozen cities around the world.
Microplastics that reach the ground can still be ingested or inhaled when agitated, for example on a windy day.
Last year, 175 nations agreed to enter into a legally binding treaty to reduce plastic pollution, with the aim of concluding negotiations by 2024.
No major breakthroughs are expected in the technical talks starting on Monday, but the main policies debated will include a global ban on single-use plastic items, a “polluter pays” scheme and a tax on the production of new or “new” plastic. virgin”.
These policies – even if fully implemented – may not be enough to reduce consumption, according to experts and ecological groups calling for a definitive cap on plastic production.
On current trends, annual production of fossil fuel-based plastics will nearly triple by 2060 to 1.2 billion tonnes, while waste will exceed 1 billion tonnes, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). .
© Agence France-Presse