Home » Plastic pollution in the ANTARCTIC is now as bad as everywhere else on Earth

Plastic pollution in the ANTARCTIC is now as bad as everywhere else on Earth

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Scientists have discovered that plastic pollution in Antarctica is as bad as everywhere else on the planet.

The University of Oxford team found microplastics in the air, seawater and sea ice in the Weddell Sea near the South Pole.

These took the form of fibrous polyesters, which originate from textiles made of synthetic materials like polyester and acrylic.

Most of the microfibres were found in air samples, meaning that Antarctic animals and seabirds could very well be breathing them in. 

The University of Oxford researchers found microplastics in the air, seawater and sea ice in the Weddell Sea near the South Pole. Pictured: Scientists taking ice core samples

Microplastics primarily took the form of fibrous polyesters, which originate from textiles made of synthetic materials like polyester and acrylic. Pictured: Microscopic image of polyester textile fibre found in sample

Microplastics primarily took the form of fibrous polyesters, which originate from textiles made of synthetic materials like polyester and acrylic. Pictured: Microscopic image of polyester textile fibre found in sample

WHAT ARE MICROPLASTICS?

Microplastics are plastic particles measuring less than five millimetres (0.2 inches).

Each year, tonnes of plastic waste fails to get recycled, which can mean it ends up in the ocean.

The material takes thousands of years to fully decompose, but the water will break down large plastic items into microscopic pieces.

Studies have revealed 700,000 plastic fibres from our clothes could be released into the environment with every washing machine cycle.

They are known to be harmful to the environment and animal health.

Co-author Professor Lucy Woodall said: ‘Our discovery of microplastics in seabed sediment samples has revealed evidence of a plastic sink in the depths of the Antarctic waters. 

‘Yet again we have seen that plastic pollution is being transported great distances by wind, ice and sea currents. 

‘The results of our research collectively demonstrate the vital importance of reducing plastic pollution globally.’

Microplastics have been making the headlines in recent years as they become more and more prevalent in our environment.

They have been detected in the bodies of animals on land and sea, fruit and vegetables, seafood and drinking water.

The tiny fragments have worryingly made it to the human body, with scientists reporting them in our lungs, blood and faeces.

Experts are worrying about their health consequences, as they have been linked to allergies and inflammatory bowel disease. 

They are being found in more and more remote locations, like the deep sea and mountain air, as well as ones closer to home.

A study from this year revealed that microplastic pollution in the Arctic is as extensive as in the rest of the planet.

Large quantities of microplastics can now be found in the water, on the seafloor, remote beaches, in rivers and even in ice and snow in the polar region.

In June, it was revealed that had been detected in freshly fallen Antarctic snow for the first time, after being found in sea ice a few years prior.

The new findings reveal that fibrous polyesters were found in all samples taken. Pictured: Scientists preparing sediment sampler during Weddell Sea Expedition

The new findings reveal that fibrous polyesters were found in all samples taken. Pictured: Scientists preparing sediment sampler during Weddell Sea Expedition

Sediment samples were retrieved at depths ranging from 1,060 to 1,740 feet (323 to 530 metres) below the surface of the Weddell Sea. Pictured: Microplastics extracted from sample

Sediment samples were retrieved at depths ranging from 1,060 to 1,740 feet (323 to 530 metres) below the surface of the Weddell Sea. Pictured: Microplastics extracted from sample

The number of microplastics recovered from air samples taken over the Weddell Sea. A: Cruise track of research vessel taking air samples. B: Air currents extrapolated using computer modelling. The researchers found that high concentration came from air masses originating over southern South America

The number of microplastics recovered from air samples taken over the Weddell Sea. A: Cruise track of research vessel taking air samples. B: Air currents extrapolated using computer modelling. The researchers found that high concentration came from air masses originating over southern South America

The Oxford scientists drew their new conclusion about microplastic prevalence in Antarctica using samples taken while trying to locate Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance.

These included sediment samples retrieved at depths ranging from 1,060 to 1,740 feet (323 to 530 metres) below the surface of the Weddell Sea.

All were studied using a range of state-of-the-art techniques, including an adhesive tape used in forensic investigations that could identify the polymer type.

Their findings, published in Frontiers in Marine Science, revealed that fibrous polyesters were found in all samples.

These are known to originate from our clothes, but also fishing gear like nets and ropes.

The concentration of microplastics was far higher in sea ice than in other sample type, and research has shown they are being trapped as layers of it freeze every year. 

Dr Mánus Cunningham, a co-lead author of the study said: ‘Sea ice is mobile, can travel vast distances and reach the permanent ice shelves of the Antarctica continent where it can be trapped indefinitely with its gathered microplastic pollutants.’ 

He believes sea ice could be considered ‘one of the main transporters of microplastics within the Antarctic region’.

The Oxford scientists drew their new conclusion about microplastic prevalence in Antarctica through samples taken while trying to locate Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance

The Oxford scientists drew their new conclusion about microplastic prevalence in Antarctica through samples taken while trying to locate Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance 

Previously, it was thought that the polar front associated with the ocean current flowing around Antarctica protected the region from airborne microplastics. Pictured: Ice shelf in Weddell Sea

Previously, it was thought that the polar front associated with the ocean current flowing around Antarctica protected the region from airborne microplastics. Pictured: Ice shelf in Weddell Sea

The concentration of microplastics was far higher in sea ice than in other sample type, and research has shown they are being trapped as layers of it freeze every year. Pictured: Microplastic transportation processes in air, seawater, sediment and sea ice in Antarctica. Black arrows show the transfer of fibres between the different media

The concentration of microplastics was far higher in sea ice than in other sample type, and research has shown they are being trapped as layers of it freeze every year. Pictured: Microplastic transportation processes in air, seawater, sediment and sea ice in Antarctica. Black arrows show the transfer of fibres between the different media

Previously, it was thought that the polar front associated with the ocean current flowing around Antarctica protected the region from airborne microplastics.

The current, which is the strongest on Earth, is called the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) and also provides a barrier to heat that keeps warm waters away.

However, the researchers modelled the region’s air trajectories, and found that high concentration came from air masses originating over southern South America.

Professor Woodall added: ‘The issue of microplastic fibres is also an airborne problem reaching even the last remaining pristine environments on our planet. 

‘Synthetic fibres are the most prevalent form of microplastic pollution globally and tackling this issue must be at the heart of the Plastic Treaty negotiations.’

The researchers hope their results will inform next week’s negotiations in Uruguay on a global treaty to end plastic pollution, hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme.

HOW CAN WE REDUCE MICROFIBRE POLLUTION? 

  1. Fill your washing machine: more space to move around in the wash results in microfibres falling off.
  2. Wash at 30°C: gentle cycles and lower temperatures decreases microfibre shedding.
  3. Ditch the dryer: tumble dryers generate about 40 times more microfibers than washing machines.
  4. Use a microfibre capture for washing machines.
  5. Choose natural fibres, e.g. organic natural fibres like cotton, linen, hemp.
  6. Avoid microfibre cleaning cloths – use natural alternatives.
  7. Wash our clothes less frequently.

Source: A Sustainable Life

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