Airborne microplastics directly linked to climate change for first time by University of Canterbury researchers

Tiny fragments of plastic floating in the air have been directly linked to climate change for the first time.

A new study out of the University of Canterbury has found airborne microplastics behave similarly to greenhouse gases.

The study's lead author Laura Revell says these pieces of plastic are "like little disco balls reflecting light".

"Microplastics have a small cooling effect by scattering sunlight out to space and they also have a small warming effect by absorbing some of the radiation emitted by the Earth, similar to how greenhouse gases behave."

University of Canterbury PhD student Alex Aves says the pieces of plastic can come from many places.

"Things like paint when [the] paint comes off buildings, that's often acrylic-based and so is plastic, also fibres, that can be anything that sheds off your clothes, anything that is a non-natural fibre."

Plastic degrades through aging and exposure to light to produce microplastics - and they remain in the Earth's atmosphere for years.

"We looked at how microplastic and fibres interact with light and we put that information into a climate model to simulate the effect that microplastics have on the overall climate balance," Revell says.

She adds the current concentration of microplastics in the atmosphere is low, so their influence on climate is small - but that could change.

"Our calculations show that a 100-fold increase on microplastic concentration today would mean microplastics would have a similar climate influence to other types of aerosols."

Five billion tonnes of plastic waste that has built up in landfills is projected to double over the next 30 years. 

While we may not see the plastic particles, we might soon see the damage they can do.