Greenpeace Discovers Microfibres In 'Pristine Wilderness' Of Antarctica

by: Lucy Jones | 1 year ago | News

Greenpeace researchers in Antarctica. Image Source.

The tiny fragments of plastic that break away from synthetic clothing when it's washed have made their way to one of the most remote places on Earth. Greenpeace researchers have discovered microfibers, microplastics and toxic chemicals in water and snow samples collected in the Antarctic.

Microplastics have been found in most of the world's oceans and drinking water supply, but there has been very little data on microplastic pollution in Antarctica, until now. New research carried out by Greenpeace on the continent suggests that no place on Earth is safe from plastic waste. 

"We may think of the Antarctic as a remote and pristine wilderness, 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," Greenpeace representative Frida Bengtsson told The Independent.

Seven of eight water samples collected by the Greenpeace team contained microplastic fibres, with at least one microfibre found in every litre of water that was tested. These fibres come from synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon that are used in the production of clothing and fishing nets. The majority of the microfibres Greenpeace discovered were identified as polyester and nylon. Researchers were unable to identify other blue and red fibres they found, but suspect that they come from highly-processed man-made cellulose products like rayon, viscose or cotton due to their vivid colour.

"Two sources of microplastic fibres in the ocean are likely to be their use in textiles and in fishing nets," the report states. "Synthetic fibres, especially polyester, are widely used in textile products. For example, 60% of the material currently used in clothing is polyester, much of it in short life “fast fashion” items of clothing. The fashion industry plans to nearly double its annual use of polyester by up to 76 million tonnes annual by 2030."

Microplastic fragments were also found in two of nine samples collected by Greenpeace trawl nets. These microplastics and microfibres are no wider than 5mm and can often be mistaken for plankton by small marine animals. Once these creatures ingest plastics, they enter the food chain where they can affect animals of all sizes. These plastics are difficult to digest and can contain potentially hazardous chemical additives.

Seven of nine fresh snow samples that Greenpeace collected during their expedition contained persistent chemicals (PFAs or PFCs). These findings suggest that the chemicals were deposited from the atmosphere.

"PFAs are a group of chemicals widely used in industrial processes and consumer products and have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues in wildlife," Greenpeace explains. "The snow samples gathered included freshly fallen snow, suggesting some of the hazardous chemicals were atmospheric and not from a local source. The chemicals are persistent and degrade in nature very slowly."

During their travels, the Greenpeace researchers also saw plenty of large man-made products in the ocean.

"Buoys, nets and tarpaulins drifted in between icebergs, which was really sad to see,” Bengtsson said. “We took them out of the water, but it really made clear to me how we need to put vast parts of this area off-limits to human activity if we're going to protect the Antarctic's incredible wildlife."

The environmental organisation is campaigning for a large area of the Antarctic to be turned into a wildlife reserve for animals. 

"We need action at source, to stop these pollutants ending up in the Antarctic in the first place,” Bengtsson said. “And we need an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary to give space for penguins, whales and the entire ecosystem to recover from the pressure they're facing."

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