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What’s in the Arctic Ocean? Whales, Seals—and Microplastic Pollution

Microplastics have inundated the most remote reaches of the globe, and polyester fibers from synthetic garments shoulder a large share of the blame, new research has found.

Synthetic fibers make up approximately 92 percent of microplastic pollution found in near-surface seawater samples from across the Arctic Ocean, according to a scientific paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications. Roughly 73 percent of those fibers are polyester that are consistent in size, shape and type to those shed by clothing and textiles during laundry.

The study bills itself as the most comprehensive study to date on Arctic Ocean microplastics. Though microplastics have been detected in Arctic pack ice, seawater and seafloor sediment, there remains a dearth of information both about the mechanisms that underpin their distribution and the scope of contamination.

Scientists examined samples collected by One Ocean Expeditions RV Akademik Ioffe and by Fisheries and Oceans Canada Arctic programs from 71 locations across the European and North American Arctic, including the North Pole. They also scrutinized water samples up to a depth of 1,015 meters at six sites in the Beaufort Sea. Based on their analysis, they found the average concentration of microplastics—which are tiny plastic fragments less than 5 millimeters in length—to be in the ballpark of 40 particles per cubic meter.

“The Arctic Ocean, while distant to many of us, has long provided food and a way of life for Inuit communities,” Peter Ross, lead author of the study, special advisor to ocean conservation nonprofit Ocean Wise and adjunct professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences at the University of British Columbia, said in a statement. “The study again underscores the vulnerability of the Arctic to environmental change and to pollutants transported from the south. It also provides important baseline data that will guide policy makers in mitigation of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans, with synthetic fibers emerging as a priority.”

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The researchers found three times more microplastic particles in the eastern Arctic than in the western Arctic, which suggested to them that new polyester fibers are being transmitted to the eastern Arctic Ocean by currents from the Atlantic. In short, there is “striking evidence” that countries surrounding the Atlantic Ocean, including North America and Europe, are likely an “important source” of microfibers, which often leak out from textiles, laundry and wastewater discharge, Ross said.

Clamping down on fiber releases from textiles could offer a “significant opportunity” to curtail marine microfiber pollution, said Anna Posacka, co-author of the study and research manager of the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab, the facility that conducted the microplastic analysis. She and her fellow scientists found that a single garment can release millions of fibers during a typical domestic wash. A single major secondary wastewater treatment plant can release as many as 21 billion microfibers into the environment in a single year; the estimated collective release of microfibers from all households in Canada and the United States could top 878 metric tons annually.

Polyester Fibers From Clothing Are Polluting the Arctic
Ocean Wise’s Microfiber Partnership, a research initiative that rallies together the apparel industry, government agencies and scientists to tackle the problem through better textile design, practices, waste management and monitoring tools, is “looking for ways to address this problem,” Posacka said. This is a problem that no single entity can solve alone: Households can install lint traps on their washing machines, the textile sector can design clothes that shed less and governments can ensure wastewater treatment plants are installing technologies that filter out microplastics. Patrick Poendl/Adobe Stock

Polyester, which had a market share of 51.5 percent of total global fiber production in 2020, is fashion’s favorite fiber, according to Textile Exchange. The sustainability nonprofit estimates that more than 55.1 million metric tons of polyester were produced in 2018. Only 13 percent came from recycled sources.

Microfibers aren’t the oceans’ only scourge either. Every year, several million metric tons of plastics find their way into the oceans, where they break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. The fashion industry has had a come-to-Jesus moment with plastic of late, as it grapples with the mounting pressure to eliminate single-use plastics from items such as polybags and disposable hangers.