(TMU) — We all know that automobiles are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and the ongoing climate crisis—but a new study released Wednesday has revealed that driving may be polluting the globe in a terrible manner that hasn’t yet been the focus of many studies.
A new study published Wednesday by the San Francisco Bay Microplastics Project has found that the single greatest source of microplastics in California’s coastal waters comes from car tires, at a rate of about 300 times greater than the microplastics washing off of microbeads from beauty products, microfibers from polyester clothing, and the myriad plastics that are washed into our sinks on a daily basis.
The tiny plastics are extremely difficult to study, primarily owing to their small size. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines microplastics as fragments of plastic that are smaller than 5 mm in length, or roughly the size of a sesame seed. They’re so small that scientists across the globe can’t even sample or study them, but the danger that the dye- and chemical-ridden pollutant poses can’t be understated.
In recent years, microplastics have come under heavy focus from conservationists and scientists as they make their way into every space possible—from the tallest mountain peaks to the stomachs of various marine organisms.
NOAA is even worried about the possibility that contaminants from microplastics have made their way into the food chain. Indeed, a recent study from the University of California, Davis, found that 25 percent of all fish seafood markets in nearby Half Moon Bay contained plastic debris while one-third of the shellfish likewise contained plastic.
This problem drove researchers from the San Francisco Estuary Institute to join forces with the 5 Gyres Institute to tackle what they claim is the first major regional study of microplastic pollution. The team analyzed hundreds of samples of fish, surface water, wastewater, stormwater and sediment in a bid to determine the source of microplastic particles.
The results were shocking and showed that within the San Francisco Bay alone, over 7 trillion pieces of microplastic wash into coastal water—primarily from tire particles left behind on streets.
"A scientific review of 52 studies recently concluded that humans on average consume a credit card’s worth of microplastic each week."
Our species lives within the biosphere like any other.https://t.co/5eDiAkaiah
— Peter Kalmus (@ClimateHuman) October 3, 2019
Mark Gold, the head of California’s Ocean Protection Council who has worked on preventing toxic chemicals from tainting state beaches and coastal waters, told the Los Angeles Times:
“I’m so used to thinking of the toxics that come from urban runoff and not the actual physical particles from something like tire dust.
But the sheer number of particles … the scope and scale of this problem makes you realize that this is something that’s definitely worth looking at a great deal more seriously.”
Modern society is completely reliant on plastic. From food preservation to water transportation, computer technology to healthcare and medicine, plastic can be found in nearly every facet of the human experience. The rubber in our tires—as well as the tires carrying food and basic goods across markets—are also made of plastic, whether the tires are natural isoprene tires or synthetic and comprised of stytrene butadiene.
Jennifer Brandon, a microplastics biologist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said:
“We’re using more and more plastic and it’s showing up as a footprint on the seafloor.
It begs the question: Is this what our civilization is going to be remembered for?”
However, some Californians are hopeful that solutions can be found, primarily in how cities are planned. Rain-gardens and other nature-based infrastructure have been floated as potential solutions that can trap runoff polluted with toxic waste from reaching the ocean, and one rain garden was found to be capable of capturing over 90 percent of microplastics.
Warner Chabot, executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, said:
“The role of greening cities becomes part of the overall solution.… It’s all part of a complex dance.
Plastic pollutes the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Plastics are a big part of the climate change problem…. Since California is the fifth-biggest economy on Earth, we have the potential to lead the planet with solutions.”