Microplastic waste and toxic chemicals have infiltrated even the wildest reaches of the Antarctic, according to Greenpeace.
Analysis of seawater samples, obtained by a recent three-month research trip off the coast of the Antarctic peninsula, revealed the presence of tiny plastic fragments with diameters of 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) or less, the environmental organization said in a report earlier this month.
Seven of the eight seawater samples contained at least one microplastic fiber per liter. Microplastics were also detected in two of nine samples taken using a manta trawl, a net system that skims the surface of the ocean, “confirming the presence of contamination in the region,” Greenpeace wrote in the report.
Microplastics stem from multiple sources, including larger plastic items in the oceans that are broken into smaller pieces by waves, sediment abrasion and degradation in sunlight. They might have been manufactured to be in the size range, as in the case of microbeads used in certain cosmetics and personal-care products.
Tiny plastic fibers can also slough off of synthetic clothing, such as those made from polyester, and into wastewater systems during laundry. (One University of California, Santa Barbara study found that the average synthetic fleece jacket releases 1.7 grams of microfibers with every wash.) Because of their size, many slip past sewage filters and into lakes, rivers and oceans, Greenpeace said.
Often mistaken by marine life as food, microplastics have been uncovered in the gastrointestinal tracts of fish, as well as in drinking water. They also have the potential to bioaccumulate, amassing toxins in the bodies of larger animals higher up in the food chain, scientists have noted.
The finding comes on the heels of an expedition by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research that discovered a staggering number of microplastics—about 12,000 particles per liter—frozen in Arctic sea ice, suggesting, as one researcher put it, that “nowhere is immune” to these pollutants.
In addition, seven of nine snow samples taken on land contained per- and polyfluorinated alkylated substances—variously known as PFASs or PFCs—that are widely employed in industrial processes and consumer products, including waterproof and dirt-repellent finishes for outdoor apparel.
“PFASs do not occur naturally,” Greenpeace said. “They’re persistent and degrade very slowly, or possibly not at all; some may last indefinitely in the environment. Once released into the environment they are dispersed over the entire globe.”
Some PFASs can bind to suspended particulate matter, hitching a ride through the atmosphere before washing out and depositing in rain and snow, the group said. Ocean currents may also convey PFASs globally and to far-flung destinations.
“We may think of the Antarctic as a remote and pristine wilderness,” said Frida Bengtsson, a Greenpeace Protect the Antarctic campaigner, in a statement about the findings. “But from pollution and climate change to industrial krill fishing, humanity’s footprint is clear.”
“These results show that even the most remote habitats of the Antarctic are contaminated with microplastic waste and persistent hazardous chemicals,” she added.
A United Nations report on World Environment Day this month showed that 50 nations are taking action to curb plastic use, from India’s ban on single-use plastics to China’s adoption of biodegradable carriers. A bill is pending in California that would require a warning label on polyester garments. Connecticut is also mulling a consumer awareness and education program “concerning the presence of synthetic microfibers in clothing.”
Still, the UN warned that more needs to be done, such as broader cooperation from businesses and better incentives to drive more recycling.
“Plastic isn’t the problem,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. “It’s what we do with it.”