Plastic fills the air above Auckland, New Zealand.
With its small population and remote location, New Zealand might hope to be sheltered from the world’s plastic pollution. But new research shows that’s far from the case. In a recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers report a mist of microplastics is constantly drifting across the country’s largest city.
“We don’t produce large amounts of plastics here in New Zealand,” said Joel Rindelaub, a research fellow at the University of Auckland in New Zealand who led the study. “But we did see large amounts of plastics falling out of the sky in Auckland.”
In 2020, Rindelaub and his colleagues installed two simple devices fashioned from glass bottles to capture plastic as it fell from the air—one in a suburban garden and the other on top of a six-story building in the heart of the city. They then used fluorescence microscopes to count the particles of plastic they collected in the contraption’s filter. The team was able to detect fragments as small as 10 microns (0.01 millimeter)—far smaller than previous studies could see.
“What got us to 10 microns,” said Rindelaub, “was mostly just the amount of time and effort that was devoted to this. A graduate student was working for months to scan the entire filter…”