Narcotics and plastic wires are spinning everywhere, even in the snow of Mount Everest.
“We know the plastic is in the deep sea and is now on the highest mountain on Earth,” says Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth in England and National Geographic Explorer. "It's ubiquitous throughout our environment."
Plastic plays an increasingly important role in our lifestyles: worldwide, the use of plastics has gone from about 5 million tons in the 1950s to more than 330 million tons in 2020. As they are used and dump, these plastic products spill tiny particles. Pieces of bags, bottles and other consumer plastics, each less than 5 millimeters long, can harm animals, such as sea crabs that remain plastic in their gills (SN: 7/8/14). They can also play with ecosystems (SN: 31/01/20).
Here are some of the most extreme places where microplastics have been found.
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On top of the highest mountain in the world
Investigations reported on Nov. 20 in One Earth of all 11 snow samples that Napper's team analyzed from Mount Everest. “I had no idea how the results were going to turn out … so that really surprised me,” Napper says.
The highest concentration of microplastics (119,000 pieces per cubic meter) was in the snow of Everest base camp, where climbers congregate, but plastic pieces also appeared somewhere at 8,440 meters above sea level, near the 8,850-meter peak. . Scientists also found plastics in three of the eight water samples from the Everest Current. Maybe the find shouldn’t be so surprising – hundreds of people try to climb the mountain every year, leaving piles of garbage behind. Most of the microplastics found were polyester fibers, probably originated by equipment and clothing of climbers.
In the deepest ocean depths
Plastic pollution in the sea is much deeper than the Pacific floating garbage patch (SN: 22/03/18). Scientists have fished plastic fibers and fragments of the guts of critters that live in ocean trenches around the edge of the Pacific. Of the 90 crustaceans analyzed in a 2019 study, 65 contained microplastics, the deepest being the 10,890 meters lower in the Mariana Trench. In another study, a water sample in Monterey Bay suggests that plastic waste accumulates below the surface and is more frequent between 200 and 600 meters deep (SN: 6/6/19).
A.J. Jamieson et al / Roy Soc Open Society 2019
Blow in the wind
Transported by air, microplastics can be directed to remote areas such as a weather station in the Pyrenees (SN: 15/04/19). On average, it is estimated that 365 microplastic particles per square meter per day rained at that site during the study period, roughly as they fall from the sky in some cities. Wind direction and speed simulations suggest that the plastic fragments traveled at least 95 miles before landing at the site.
Embedded in Arctic ice
A 2018 study reported millions to tens of millions of pieces of microplastic per cubic meter from melted Arctic ice cores. The research team identified 17 types of plastic, including some used in packaging materials and others used in paints or fibers. Another 2020 report found lower concentrations for sea ice cores, ranging from 2,000 to 17,000 plastic particles per cubic meter. The 2020 study also found that the water under the ice floes had between 0 and 18 microplastic particles per cubic meter.
In our bowels
A 2019 study estimates that an average American consumes between 39,000 and 52,000 pieces of microplastic a year. The researchers discovered this number by resorting to previous studies that had investigated plastic parts in tap and bottled water and in certain foods, such as fish, sugar, salt and alcohol.