Microplastics, plastic pieces smaller than 5 millimeters, have become increasingly prevalent in the natural world, and a suite of studies published in the last three years, including several from 2020, shows that they’ve contaminated not only the ocean and pristine wildernesses, but the air, our food, and even our bodies.Past research has indicated that 5.25 trillion plastic pieces are floating in the ocean, but a new study says that there are 2.5 to 10 times more microplastics in the ocean than previously thought, while another recent study found that microplastic “hotspots” could hold 1.9 million pieces per square meter.Other emerging research suggests that 136,000 tons of microplastics in the ocean are being ejected into the atmosphere each year, and blowing back onto land with the sea breeze, posing a risk to human health.Microplastics are also present in drinking water, and edible fruits and vegetables, according to new research, which means that humans are ingesting microplastics every day. In 1997, Charles Moore was sailing a catamaran from Hawaii to California when he and his crew got stuck in windless waters in the North Pacific Ocean. As they motored along, searching for a breeze to fill their sails, Moore noticed that the ocean was speckled with “odd bits and flakes,” as he describes it in his book, Plastic Ocean. It was plastic: drinking bottles, fishing nets, and countless pieces of broken-down objects. “It wasn’t an eureka moment … I didn’t come across a mountain of trash,” Moore told Mongabay. “But there was this feeling of unease that this material had got [as] far from human civilization as it possibly could.” Captain Charles Moore looking at a piece of floating plastic in the ocean. Image by Algalita Marine Research and Education. Moore, credited as the person who discovered what’s now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, returned to the same spot two years later on a citizen science mission. When he and his crew collected water samples, they found that, along with larger “macroplastics,” the seawater was swirling with tiny plastic particles: microplastics, which are defined as anything smaller than 5 millimeters but bigger than 1 micron, which is 1/1000th of a millimeter. Microplastics can form when larger pieces of plastics break down into small particles, or when tiny, microscopic fibers detach from polyester clothing or synthetic fishing gear. Other microplastics are deliberately manufactured, such as the tiny plastic beads in exfoliating cleaners. “That’s when we really had the eureka moment,” Moore said. “When we pulled in that first trawl, which was outside of what we thought was going to be the center [of the gyre], and found it was full of plastic. Then we realized, ‘Wow, this is a serious situation.’” Captain Charles Moore holding up a jar of plastic-filled seawater from a research expedition in 2009. Image by Algalita Marine Research and Education. Since Moore’s discovery of the plastic-swirling gyres, there’s been a growing amount of research to try and understand the scale of the plastic pollution issue, including several studies from 2020. This new research shows that there’s actually a larger quantity of plastic in the ocean than previously thought, and that the plastic even enters the atmosphere and blows back onto land with the sea breeze. Recent studies also indicate that plastic is infiltrating our bodies through food and drinking water. The upshot is that plastic is ubiquitous in the ocean, air, food supply, and even in our own bodies. The new picture that is emerging, scientists say, is of a biosphere permeated with plastic particles right down to the very tissues of humans and other living things, with consequences both known and unknown for the lifeforms on our planet.