14 July 2020

Atmospheric transport of microplastic pollution from roads

The atmospheric transport of microplastics produced by road traffic is modelled in a paper in Nature Communications. The study finds that microplastic particles are transported to remote regions, including the Arctic, and estimates that similar total amounts of these particles end up in the oceans as a result of airborne delivery as are deposited by rivers.

© Péter Gudella | Dreamstime.com

© Péter Gudella | Dreamstime.com

As the production rate of new plastic products continues to increase, ever greater quantities evade waste collection and recycling. In recent years, marine, freshwater and terrestrial pollution with microplastics has been discussed extensively, whereas atmospheric microplastic transport has been largely overlooked.

Nikolaos Evangeliou and colleagues combine a global quantification of road microplastics (produced from tyre wear and brake wear) with simulations of atmospheric transport pathways to determine the trajectory of these pollutants. Road microplastic emissions currently constitute 30% of microplastic pollution, the majority of which comes from densely populated regions like the eastern US, Northern Europe and the heavily urbanized areas of Southeast Asia. The authors found that larger particles were deposited close to the source of production. Conversely, microplastics that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller in size were transported further afield. They estimate that 52,000 tonnes per year of the small size microplastics end up in the world’s oceans. However, around 14% (20,000 tonnes per year) ends up on remote snow- and ice-covered surfaces. The authors note that this is concerning for sensitive regions, such as the Arctic, because the dark particles decrease surface albedo (the amount of sunlight reflected from the Earth’s surface) and could hasten melting.

This research work made use of detailed estimates of the global emissions of particulate matter arising from tyre wear and brake wear calculated with the AIR Program's GAINS model. The resulting paper is the latest in a growing line of modelling studies that have been based on global emission estimates generated in the course of the ECLIPSE and subsequent projects.

Based on a press release prepared by Nature Research.

Reference

Evangeliou N, Grythe H, Klimont Z , Heyes C , Eckhardt S, Lopez-Aparicio S, & Stohl A (2020). Atmospheric transport is a major pathway of microplastics to remote regions. Nature Communications 11, 3381.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17201-9


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Last edited: 20 July 2020

CONTACT DETAILS

Zbigniew Klimont

Senior Research Scholar

Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases

T +43(0) 2236 807 547

Chris Heyes

Senior Research Scholar

Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases

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PUBLICATIONS

Evangeliou N, Grythe H, Klimont Z , Heyes C , Eckhardt S, Lopez-Aparicio S, & Stohl A (2020). Atmospheric transport is a major pathway of microplastics to remote regions. Nature Communications 11 (1) DOI:10.1038/s41467-020-17201-9.

Huang Y, Unger N, Harper K, & Heyes C (2020). Global Climate and Human Health Effects of the Gasoline and Diesel Vehicle Fleets. GeoHealth 4 (3): e2019GH000240. DOI:10.1029/2019GH000240.

Klimont Z , Kupiainen K, Heyes C , Purohit P , Cofala J, Rafaj P , Borken-Kleefeld J , & Schöpp W (2017). Global anthropogenic emissions of particulate matter including black carbon. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 17 (14): 8681-8723. DOI:10.5194/acp-17-8681-2017.

Anenberg SC, Miller J, Minjares R, Du L, Henze DK, Lacey F, Malley CS, Emberson L, et al. (2017). Impacts and mitigation of excess diesel-related NOx emissions in 11 major vehicle markets. Nature 545 (7655): 467-471. DOI:10.1038/nature22086.

Winiger P, Andersson A, Eckhardt S, Stohl A, Semiletov IP, Dudarev OV, Charkin A, Shakhova N, et al. (2017). Siberian Arctic black carbon sources constrained by model and observation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (7): E1054-E1061. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1613401114.

Stohl A, Aamaas B, Amann M, Baker LH, Klimont Z , Kupiainen K, & Heyes C (2015). Evaluating the climate and air quality impacts of short-lived pollutants. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 15 (18): 10529-10566. DOI:10.5194/acp-15-10529-2015.

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