Clothes washing linked to bulk of microplastics in Arctic Ocean
The Arctic is pervasively polluted by microplastic fibres that most likely come from the washing of synthetic clothes by people in Europe and north America, researchers say.
The most comprehensive study to date has found microplastics in all but one of nearly 100 seawater samples taken from across the polar region. More than 92% of the microplastics were fibres and 73% of these were polyester and of the same width and colours as used in clothes.
Most of the samples were taken from three to eight metres below the surface, where much marine life feeds.
Other recent analysis estimated that 3,500 trillion plastic microfibres from clothes washing in the US and Canada ended up in the sea each year, while modelling suggests plastic dumped in the seas around the UK is carried to the Arctic within two years.
The researchers found plastic fibres at the north pole. With plastic recently discovered in the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth, and on Mount Everest’s peak, it is clear that humanity’s litter – known to injure wildlife by being mistaken for food – has polluted the entire planet. People themselves are taking in microplastics via food and water, and breathing in the particles.
Much more water flows into the Arctic from the Atlantic than the Pacific, and the research says that higher concentrations of microplastic fibres were found nearer the Atlantic, as well as longer, less degraded, fibres.
Peter Ross, the vice-president of research at Ocean Wise Conservation Association, in Vancouver, who led the study, said: “We’re looking at a dominance of Atlantic inputs, which means that sources of textile fibres in the north Atlantic from Europe and north America are likely to be driving the contamination in the Arctic Ocean.
“With these polyester fibres we’ve essentially created a cloud throughout the world’s oceans. The Arctic is, yet again, at the receiving end of pollutants from the south.”
Toxic chemical pollutants, including mercury and PCBs, are known to be present at the north pole. “It’s certainly cause for concern when we realise that the Inuit people rely very heavily on aquatic foods.”
Seawater at three to eight metres down is “a biologically important area where we find phytoplankton, zooplankton, small fish, big fish, seabirds, and marine mammals, foraging for food”, said Ross. Large animals such as turtles, albatrosses, seals and whales are known to be killed by plastic and he said there was no reason to think it was different for the smaller ones.
The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, took 71 near-surface samples stretching from Norway to the north pole and into the Canadian High Arctic. Another 26 samples were taken at depths of up 1,000 metres in the Beaufort Sea, to the north of Alaska.
“A dominance of polyester was evident throughout the water column, highlighting the pervasive spread of synthetic fibres throughout the waters of the Arctic Ocean,” the researchers concluded. They found an average of 40 microplastic particles per cubic metre of water. The researchers said the types of plastics found at various depths in the ocean depended upon the materials’ density; buoyant polystyrene was likely to float while dense PVC would sink to the ocean floor. Polyester was closer to neutral buoyancy.
Only a small proportion of the fibres found were thought to be from fishing gear, which uses different types of plastics. It is possible some of the fibres were carried to the Arctic by winds.
Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer and climate scientist at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, said: “It is impressive how many samples they were able to take from such inhospitable places. The results show again plastic is now omnipresent. The question should perhaps become ‘where don’t we find plastic yet?’
“Plastic anywhere in the environment is an atrocity, but in the Arctic it’s probably more harmful than in most other places. That’s because it comes on top of the dramatic and dangerous climate change that the region and its ecosystems are experiencing. Pollution could be the proverbial drop that tips the bucket.”
Ross said individuals, clothes manufacturers, wastewater treatment firm and governments could all help stem the flow of microplastics into the Arctic. “We all have a role to play. It’s not about blaming textiles or the petrochemical complex. It’s about everybody acknowledging that this is not something that we want to see in the world’s oceans.”
Van Sebille said: “We could hardly go out and about without clothes … but we should think about better textiles.”