Highest microplastics ever found lie near the summit of Mt Everest
As tiny waste products measuring up to just a few millimeters in size, microplastics are an insidious form of plastic pollution that is incredibly difficult to trace, but scientists are gaining a clearer picture of how far-reaching its presence is. The latest discovery in this area comes from high altitude, with researchers studying microplastics on Mt Everest for the first time uncovering evidence of them just below the summit.
Much of the research into microplastic pollution focuses on its path through the marine environment, with larger plastic debris washing into the seas where the corrosive forces of the ocean break it down into tiny pieces. Research has uncovered high concentrations of microplastics in the deep ocean and on the seafloor, along with growing evidence of how they can impact the well-being of marine species.
We now also know that microplastics can be found in sea ice in the Antarctic and the Arctic, and even in Arctic snowfall. What hasn’t been studied nearly as much is how abundant microplastics may be in terrestrial environments, much less the remote mountaintops of the Himalayas.
Looking to shed some light on this topic, researchers at the University of Plymouth analyzed snow and stream samples collected during a springtime expedition to Everest in 2019. The scientists found the highest concentration of microplastics around Everest base camp, which is relatively heavily populated by hikers and tourists, though they also found evidence of them as high as 8,440 m (27,700 ft) above sea level, right near the summit. Beyond this, they were also able to show which types of plastic pollution were present on the world’s tallest mountain.
"The samples showed significant quantities of polyester, acrylic, nylon, and polypropylene fibers," says first author Imogen Napper. "Those materials are increasingly being used to make the high-performance outdoor clothing climbers use as well as tents and climbing ropes, so we highly suspect that these types of items are the major source of pollution rather than things like food and drink containers."
Knowing what types of plastic were there will help scientists trace the path of the pollution. Due to their small size and apparent abundance, microplastics are very difficult to cleanup, so limiting our reliance on products that contain them and developing alternatives will be key to our efforts to clean up (or prevent) the mess.
"Currently, environmental efforts tend to focus on reducing, reusing, and recycling larger items of waste,” says Napper. “This is important, but we also need to start focusing on deeper technological solutions that focus on microplastics, like changing fabric design and incorporating natural fibers instead of plastic when possible.”
The research was published in the journal One Earth.