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Is Any Place Safe From Microplastic Pollution?

Microplastics have infiltrated the loneliest reaches of the planet, including polar sea ice and surface water. Now, scientists have detected the tiny shards of plastic, which are no bigger than a grain of rice, in freshly fallen Antarctic snow, with huge implications for the health of the continent’s ecosystems and its climate.

The research, conducted by University of Canterbury Ph.D. student Alex Aves in 2019 and published last week, homed in on 19 sites in Antarctica, where more than a dozen types of plastic were found. The most ubiquitous version was polyethylene terephthalate, better known by its acronym PET, which is frequently used to make plastic bottles and clothing.

“When Alex traveled to Antarctica in 2019, we were optimistic that she wouldn’t find any microplastics in such a pristine and remote location,” said associate professor Laura Revell, Aves’s supervisor. In addition to more remote sites, “we asked her to collect snow off the Scott Base and McMurdo Station roadways, so she’d have at least some microplastics to study.”

Back in the lab, it quickly became obvious that plastic particles were present in every sample, even those from remote sites on the Ross Ice Shelf. Every liter of melted snow contained an average of 29 microplastic particles, higher than marine concentrations previously reported from the surrounding Ross Sea and in Antarctic sea ice.

Revell said that on hindsight she shouldn’t have been surprised. “From the studies published in the last few years, we’ve learned that everywhere we look for airborne microplastics, we find them,” she said.

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While atmospheric modeling suggests that the microplastics may have traversed thousands of miles through the air, it is equally plausible that human presence in Antarctica has established a microplastic “footprint,” the scientists said. Microplastics have been linked to growth and reproductive disruptions in organisms and oxidative stress, DNA damage and inflammation in humans. Their presence in the environment could also accelerate snow and ice melt, influencing the climate, they added.

“It’s incredibly sad but finding microplastics in fresh Antarctic snow highlights the extent of plastic pollution into even the most remote regions of the world,” Aves said. “We collected snow samples from sites across the Ross Island region of Antarctica and found microplastics in all of these.”

The revelation amid calls from a coalition of researchers and environmental campaigners asking British lawmakers to back a bill that would require appliance manufacturers to fit microplastic-catching filters to new domestic and commercial washing machines amid the growing use of synthetic materials in fashion. Synthetic fibers, including polyester and nylon, make up 69 percent of all materials used in textiles today, according to petrochemical analytics firm Tecnon OrbiChem. By 2030, they will comprise more than 75 percent,

In an open letter to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last week, Eco-Age, Fashion for Good, Greenpeace U.K., Oceana and others urged the United Kingdom to join France “at the front of the pack in tackling microplastic pollution.” As of January 2025, all new French washing machines will have to include a microfiber filter.

Washing machine filters can cut 90 percent of microplastics released from laundering, the letter said. “Whilst addressing clothing overproduction and overconsumption is the ultimate solution to the microplastic problem, the installation of microfibre filters to laundering appliances presents itself as an immediate and effective solution,” it added. “Further longer-term solutions include root-cause change at [the] material design level, maximum thresholds on microplastic release, pre-washing with filters, informative labeling, promotion of responsible material selection and improved regulations for wastewater and sewage sludge.”

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Patagonia and Samsung said they are working together to develop a washing machine that minimizes the number of microfibers, both natural and synthetic, that enter waterways during laundering. One of the outdoor-wear label’s signature polyester fleece jackets can discharge up to 250,000 flecks of plastic during a single wash, Patagonia found in 2016. Experts say that microfibers that slough off natural materials such as cotton or linen can also present a problem, especially if they have been dyed, processed or treated with toxic chemicals.

The ZDHC Foundation and The Microfibre Consortium (TMC) are also grappling with microfiber pollution, albeit higher up in the value chain. Following TMC’s release of manufacturing guidelines on reducing microfibers in textile manufacturing wastewater, it and ZDHC will partner closely on a “new phase” of the project that “leverages each other’s expertise and infrastructure.” This will include defining a test method to measure fiber loss within wastewater at a manufacturing level, determining a baseline for microfiber loss from manufacturing facilities and creating a harmonized reporting structure to capture all that information.

“We are looking here to maximize change, without the need for huge investment or complicated modifications within textile production,” Sophie Mather, executive director at TMC, said last week. “There is an urgency for us to be able to measure consistently from facility to facility, so that we can manage loss and ultimately impact. I offer up a call to action for [the] industry at all levels, synthetic and natural fibers, high fashion to outdoor, to align and encourage manufacturing facilities to support this work.”