The Guardian

Clothes wash­ing linked to bulk of mi­croplas­tics in Arc­tic Ocean

- Damian Car­ring­ton En­vi­ron­ment edi­tor Animals · Zoology · Science · Ecology · Wildlife · Biology · Arctic · Arctic · United States of America · United Kingdom · Mount Everest · Atlantic Ocean · Pacific Ocean · Wise · Vancouver · Norway · Alaska · Utrecht University · Netherlands · Nature Communications · Beaufort, MO · Utrecht

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.”

 ?? PHO­TO­GRAPH: PAUL SOUDERS/GETTY ?? Ringed seal, Canada. Tex­tile fi­bres from the north At­lantic ‘drive the Arc­tic Ocean’s mi­croplas­tics pol­lu­tion’
PHO­TO­GRAPH: PAUL SOUDERS/GETTY Ringed seal, Canada. Tex­tile fi­bres from the north At­lantic ‘drive the Arc­tic Ocean’s mi­croplas­tics pol­lu­tion’
 ??  ?? Seabirds such as Arc­tic terns are vul­ner­a­ble to plas­tic de­bris
Seabirds such as Arc­tic terns are vul­ner­a­ble to plas­tic de­bris
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