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November 28, 2020
News Science

Plastics are showing up in the world’s most remote places, including Mount Everest

Minuscule shreds and threads of plastic are turning up all over, including in the snow on Mount Everest.

“We’ve known that plastic is in the deep sea, and now it’s on the tallest mountain on Earth,” says Imogen Napper, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth in England and a National Geographic Explorer. “It’s ubiquitous through our whole environment.”

Plastic plays an increasingly large role in our lifestyles: Globally, the use of plastics has shot up from around 5 million metric tons in the 1950s to more than 330 million metric tons in 2020. As they’re used and cast away, these plastic products shed tiny particles. The broken-down bits of bags, bottles and other consumer plastics, each smaller than 5 millimeters, can harm animals, such as marine crabs that get plastics stuck in their gills (SN: 7/8/14). They may also mess with ecosystems (SN: 1/31/20).

Here are some of the most extreme places where microplastics have been found.

Atop the world’s tallest mountain

All of the 11 snow samples that Napper’s team analyzed from Mount Everest contained plastic, the researchers report November 20 in One Earth. “I had no idea what the results were going to look like … so that really took me aback,” says Napper.

The highest concentration of microplastics — 119,000 pieces per cubic meter — was in snow from Everest Base Camp, where climbers congregate, but plastic pieces also appeared at a spot 8,440 meters above sea level, near the 8,850-meter summit. The scientists also found plastics in three of eight samples of stream water from Everest. Perhaps the finding should not have been so surprising: Hundreds of people attempt to summit the mountain each year, leaving piles of trash behind. The majority of the microplastics found were polyester fibers, likely originating from climbers’ equipment and clothes.

In the deepest ocean depths

Plastic pollution in the sea goes far deeper than the floating Pacific garbage patch (SN: 3/22/18). Scientists have fished plastic fibers and fragments from the guts of critters dwelling in ocean trenches around the Pacific Rim. Of 90 crustaceans analyzed in a 2019 study, 65 contained microplastics, with the deepest coming from 10,890 meters down in the Mariana Trench. In another study, a sampling of water in the Monterey Bay suggests that plastic debris is accumulating below the surface and is most prevalent at 200 to 600 meters deep (SN: 6/6/19).

Animals are ingesting microplastics in the deepest parts of the sea. In the guts of amphipods (one shown, left) collected from nine sites on the Pacific Rim’s trenches, researchers found plastic fragments, including microfibers (right) found in a critter from 10,890 meters deep in the Mariana Trench.A.J. Jamieson et al/Roy Soc Open Society 2019

Blowing in the wind

Carried through the air, microplastics can make their way to remote areas such as a meteorological station in the Pyrenees Mountains (SN: 4/15/19). On average, an estimated 365 microplastic particles per square meter per day rained down on that site during the study period, about as much as falls from the sky in some cities. Simulations of wind directions and speed suggest the plastic fragments traveled at least 95 kilometers before landing at the site.

Embedded in Arctic ice

A 2018 study reported millions to tens of millions of microplastic pieces 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 water beneath ice floes held between 0 to 18 microplastic particles per cubic meter. 

In our guts

A 2019 study estimates that an average American consumes between 39,000 and 52,000 pieces of microplastic a year. Researchers came up with this number by drawing on previous studies that had surveyed plastic pieces in tap and bottled water and in certain food items, such as fish, sugar, salt and alcohol.

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