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Microfiber plastic pollution found in Antarctica

Updated: Aug 4

  • Microfiber plastic pollution has made it all the way to Antarctica

  • An expedition from the Ocean Legacy Foundation and Ocean Geographic uncovered the pollution as part of its research

  • Chemical companies manufacture 400 million tons of plastic each year -- and 200 million pounds is ditched after one use

  • Ending single use plastic production and creating biodegradable alternatives is vital to restoring natural habitats

The world's most remote locations, including the frigid waters off the Antarctic desert on the Southern tip of the globe are now home to microplastics.

As part of the 2023 Antarctic Climate Expedition, the non-profit Ocean Legacy Foundation took samples of ocean waters off the coast of Antarctica in February to determine the prevalence of plastic fibers in the world's remote waters.

The expedition, organized by the oceanographer Sylvia Earle and the explorer and Ocean Geographic founder, Michael Aw, used surface sample trawls around icebergs and small chunks of floating ice.

Using microscopic imaging at the University of British Columbia, researchers identified microfiber plastics in all of the wet samples that the expedition uncovered.

“The exploration of plastic pollution around the Antarctic was a rare and unique opportunity to begin to quantify the presence of plastic pollution in one of the wildest places left on this planet,” said Chloé Dubois, co-founder, Ocean Legacy Foundation -- and one of the members of the Antarctic expedition. “This study confirms that just as other parts of the ocean, Antarctica is no exception, and its waters are contaminated by plastic pollution.”

Chemical companies produce more than 400 million tons of plastic each year -- and roughly 200 million tons are only used once before they're thrown away. About 13 tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, and the rest is landfilled where those plastics can leach into groundwater and create more pollution.

“Antarctica lies at the heart of the climate crisis and holds the key to solutions and lessons that can be applied globally,” said Ocean Geographic's founder, Aw, in a statement. “In the 10 expeditions I have done since 2003, this was the most dramatic degradation I have seen. Just as other parts of the ocean, Antarctica is no exception, its waters are affected by plastic pollution. The next ten years are critical for changing the tipping points into turning points and maintaining a habitable planet for humanity.”

Companies are developing solutions to the plastic problem. FootPrint Coalition Ventures (the investment arm of FootPrintCoalition) has backed RWDC Industries, which is developing a biodegradable plastic replacement.

Other startup businesses are tackling microfiber pollution by replacing the infinitesimally small micro-capsules in laundry detergent and other coatings. That's what the French company, Calyxia, aims to do at least.

And then there're the filter manufacturers, robots, and recyclers that are using big (or small) equipment to collect, sort and upcycle plastic waste from the oceans.

All of these new companies are being boosted by legislation in Europe (and global negotiations) that attempt to curb plastic use and pollution.

In June, world leaders met in Paris to advance global negotiations on a plastics ban. The target date is the end of 2024 to have a working draft of a treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040.

In Europe, bans on single use plastic are already going into effect and the European Union continues to revise its regulations on plastic use, reuse, and the development of alternatives.

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