It's a memorable scene in American Beauty: film of a plastic bag floating in the wind. A researcher with Scotland's University of Strathclyde started wondering about bags like that, and where they go when they leave our sight. "We thought that maybe it just doesn't disappear, so we started looking for it a bit higher up," Steve Allen tells NPR. And they found it: high amounts of microplastic floating in the air in France's remote Pyrenees mountains. They went halfway up, placing collectors at 4,500 feet. For five months, those collectors trapped the wind-borne microplastic present there. The numbers were "astounding," says Allen, and comparable to what you'd find in the air in Paris and Dongguan, China, the two major cities for which info on "atmospheric microplastic deposition or transport" is known, per the study.
The collectors recovered an average 365 particles of microplastic per day per square meter. Microplastics are the result of bigger pieces of plastic breaking down, and defined as bits smaller than 0.2 inches. What the team found in the air in the Pyrenees didn't just come from plastic bags, but also packing material and clothing. And they didn't come from nearby: "An air mass trajectory analysis shows microplastic transport through the atmosphere over a distance of up to [60 miles]," the authors wrote in the study published in Nature Geoscience. The BBC reports the nearest village was 4 miles away, and the nearest major city, Toulouse, was a distance of 75 miles. "It opens up the possibility that it's not only in the cities you are breathing this in, but it can travel quite some distance from the sources," Allen says. (A plastic bag was found in a truly depressing spot.)