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Drink lattes? Order takeout? You’re breathing in invisible toxins

Microplastics aren’t just in the ocean. This interactive shows we breathe them in too.

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You’re likely aware that plastic litters the oceans. But there’s another kind of plastic pollution you might not have heard of. It’s called atmospheric microplastic. And as a new interactive visualization shows, we’re breathing it in all the time.

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Plastic Air, a new interactive website by Pentagram partner Giorgia Lupi, designer and developer Talia Cotton, and strategy and new business lead Phil Cox in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture, visualizes just how much plastic is free-floating in the air outside on any given day—and how our day-to-day habits make it even worse. Unfortunately, one thing is clear: Although microplastics picked up in a breeze are basically invisible, they’re everywhere.

That’s because microplastics, or plastic particles under 5 millimeters in size, shed off of and break down from just about any plastic product you use—some you may not even think of as plastic. Say you pick up a latte with a plastic lid, or wash a sweater with synthetic fibers, or eat a piece of candy and chuck the wrapper. Once broken down, those little particles can get caught in a breeze and travel as far as the Arctic or the French Pyrenees mountains—and ultimately, into your lungs. Though researchers say there’s not a lot of information available on the behavior of microplastics in the air, it could have harmful effects on your health, including inflammation, lesions, and respiratory problems such as asthma with continued exposure.

Plastic Air makes a swirling vortex of that reality right in front of your eyes. Users can click a toggle in the top left corner to see the plastic in the air, and plastic fibers, films, granules, and fragments start to dance across the site in abstract shapes and varying colors. Hover your mouse over one particle for the inside scoop on its makeup: One black triangle represents nylon, possibly from a fishing net (size, 33 micrometers; traveled, 252.8 miles). Another is a red squiggly piece of fiber, possibly from a sweater (size, 109 micrometers; traveled, 71.5 miles). Users can also customize the experience using buttons on the side of the page to shift between urban and remote settings, introduce rain and snow, and more.

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[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
The team wanted to move away from the typical cloudy depictions of pollution, according to Lupi, and into something that’s so beautiful users will want to stay, interact with the site, and learn more. The team worked with researchers to figure out what kind of site would help them build awareness of the issue, according to Cox, who helped develop the site content. Cotton, who made the color, graphic, and type choices, noted that the bright selection of colors was inspired by the microplastics themselves. You can see a microscopic image of these plastics under the “What can I do?” tab.

[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
The site draws a direct connection between our individual habits and the amount of microplastics in the air. Hover your mouse over the background, which is a sky that constantly changes color, and you’ll notice a little message appears, such as “redecorate,” “eat some candy,” “order takeout,” or “drink a latte.” Each click sends a related object—maybe a pillow, candy wrapper, or takeout box—reeling onto the screen, spawning a confettilike, hazardous, multicolored party pack of plastic particles in its wake.

So what to do about this microscopic, floating plastic garbage? Open a bubblegum pink “What can I do?” tab, and the direction is there in black-and-white, oversized type: Stop using plastics. Second best? Minimize your use. The bare minimum? Start being aware of the materials around you that are made of plastic. Because they’re everywhere. Of course, companies bear responsibility here too. If we really want to stop the microplastic problem at the source, companies need to shift away from producing it. People should be able to drink a latte without feeling like they’re murdering the planet.

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Cotton hopes the site creates enough conversation to get researchers the funding they need to gather more comprehensive data on atmospheric plastic. Says Cox: “What’s important here is that we didn’t want to alarm just for the sake of it. You can’t just tell people that something is bad and hope they believe it. You have to make it real.”

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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