Even the web has become a staging area for the most common plastic pollution

(ORDO NEWS) — If microplastics have boundaries, we don’t yet know what they are. We seem to find this microscopic debris everywhere we look, from the bottom of the ocean to the highest peak on Earth.

We’re starting to figure out why. Apart from all the disturbing discoveries about microplastics ending up inside our bodies, we now know that these tiny fragments can travel through the air, floating in the atmosphere, at least until something stops them.

In a new study, scientists have used an ingenious method to track this insidious phenomenon of air pollution, thanks to a completely natural and rather ubiquitous substance – the web.

“Spiders are found all over the world, including in cities,” says organic geochemist Barbara Scholz-Bettcher of the Carl von Ossitzky University in Oldenburg, Germany.

“Their sticky web is the perfect trap for anything that flies in the air.”

Sticky webs may seem like a nightmare when you walk through them, but they prove to be a brilliant organic commodity for monitoring urban particulate pollution.

In an experiment, student researcher Rebecca Süsmuth collected webs attached to bus stops on the streets of Oldenburg in northwestern Germany (the webs were located about 2 meters or 6.5 feet from the ground).

Analyzing web samples in the lab, the researchers tested the threads for several different types of plastic polymer formations; as it turned out, the tests showed that microplastics stuck to the web.

“All the webs were contaminated with microplastics,” says study co-author Isabelle Gossmann, who worked on the study as part of her doctoral dissertation.

According to the results, microplastics trapped in the web can be up to 10 percent of the weight of the entire web and consist of several different types of microplastics.

About 90 percent of the detritus was a form of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), with the predominant polymer being C-PET, likely derived from textile fibers, the team says.

Another source of microplastics was finely divided tire wear particles (TWP), which break off from the outside of the tires during braking and acceleration, and which were expected to be found in large numbers given the roadside location of the web collections.

Although TWP rubbers are not technically plastics, they are increasingly being included in definitions of microplastic pollution due to their synthetic nature, the researchers say.

While the findings are yet another depressing reminder of the ubiquity of microplastic pollution, at least here we have found a smart and inexpensive way to help monitor the problem – even if web sampling isn’t as innovative as you might think.

The web has indeed been used for such environmental tests for at least 30 years, the team notes, but the researchers claim this is the first time it has been examined for microplastics, and these naturally occurring traps have not disappointed.

“Sampling is simple and does not require special sampling devices,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

“Covered bus shelters are popular all over the world, and web-spinning spiders are found in almost every habitat on Earth. Therefore, webs are an easily accessible means of mirroring microplastics in urban air.”

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