How microplastic pollution reaches even the most remote parts of the world

Alfred Wegener Institute

When it comes to the effect manmade materials have on the environment, you need look no further than, well, every corner of the globe, apparently. Microplastics, or tiny pieces of plastic that pollute the environment, have now officially been found as far away as the northernmost parts of the earth. Now, according to a new study, it appears microplastics have been found as far away as the Alps and even the Arctic Ocean, where most humans rarely tread.

Ecologist Melanie Bergmann and her colleagues at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany published a study in Science Advances that examined how these microplastics spread, the mechanics of which aren't yet fully understood by researchers. The tiny bits of plastic debris, which can be up to the size of a single sesame seed or smaller, are present just about everywhere now, it seems. Bergmann and her team set out to examine whether or not microplastics can gather in the air, and they pulled samples from snow in the Alps and even sea ice from the Arctic Ocean to do so. Snow was chosen because it tends to capture particles from the air more readily than other surfaces, so if there were any to find, the team would find it there. And find microplastics in these locations they did. Shocking numbers of them, in fact, which surprised Bergmann and her team.

During the investigation, Bergmann and company discovered thousands of particles of microplastic within nearly every sample they retrieved from the Arctic. Even more distressing, one liter of snow had about 14,000 particles of microplastic. Just think about how much one liter is.

Even more unsettling is the idea that microplastics could very well be found everywhere within the air, the environment, and more of the water we ingest than we think. With the effects of microplastics on human health not yet fully understood (but likely not great since we aren't supposed to eat plastic, obviously) it's not clear what this kind of pollution is actually doing to us when it enters our bodies. Given that its already making trouble for fish and insects by blocking their digestive tracts, it's a safe bet they're at least a contributing factor to society's various ails as well. They were certainly a factor in the death of a sperm whale that washed on shore in Sardinia with a whopping 48 pounds of plastic in its stomach.

Bergmann and her team collected as many samples as they could, but in the end were only able to get particles above 11 micrometers across, which is no thicker than cling wrap, according to The Atlantic. Which means there's likely far more in the samples initially examined than previously thought given that these smaller pieces weren't able to be detected.

It's pretty terrifying, when you think about it. Tiny pieces of plastic are littering our world as we speak, and they're only just now being considered a major source of pollution. They begin as larger plastic goods like toys, clothes, maybe a storage bin or two, but eventually they're destroyed. They splinter and crack and eventually become tiny fragments that scatter throughout the environment, shreds of items transforming into mere pieces of what they once were. It's poignant when you think about items being recycled in a similar manner, but not when the plastic remnants end up all over the earth as far away from civilization as the High Arctic island of Svalbard.

So what's the fix? It's unclear at this point, but it seems fairly obvious that turning a blind eye toward a problem that's very clearly not going away anytime soon isn't the answer. Given that many of the pieces that end up in the snow and sediment like those collected end up coming from tires or varnish, simply reducing our personal plastic usage isn't enough.

“With our current political and economic system, we find it difficult to reduce single-use plastic, but that’s actually the easy part,” said Bergmann. “Reducing varnish or the use of car tires...that’s a lot more difficult."