Microplastic pollution has reached the remote, pristine, and highest point on Earth, a new study finds.
Researchers found evidence of microplastic in the snow and stream samples collected from Mount Everest during the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition. The research, published in the journal One Earth, found microplastics as high as 8,440m, just below the summit, with a higher concentration in the base camp.
Microplastics are small plastic pieces that are less than five millimeters long, resulting from the slow breakdown of the larger plastics. They are difficult to clean and pose a serious threat to the ecosystem. Animals and marine organisms can accidentally ingest them and can cause permanent damage to the food chain. Ocean microplastics have been studied in detail; however, land-based, especially the mountain tops, have not been studied well.
According to the first author Imogen Napper, a scientist based at the University of Plymouth, Mount Everest has been described as the world’s highest junkyard. Napper, described by her colleagues as a “plastic detective,” is also a National Geographic Explorer.
“Microplastics haven’t been studied on the mountain before, but they’re generally just as persistent and typically more difficult to remove than larger items of debris,” Napper adds.
It is important to identify the type of plastic as well as the source of the pollution. The samples analyzed in the lab at the University of Plymouth in the UK showed significant quantities of polyester, acrylic, nylon, and polypropylene fibers. These materials are increasingly used to make high-performance outdoor clothing, tents, and climbing ropes used by the climbers. The researchers suspect these items are the major source of pollution rather than food and beverage containers.
According to Naper, “Currently, environmental efforts tend to focus on reducing, reusing, and recycling larger items of waste. 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 study has confirmed the presence of microplastics on Mount Everest; however, a clean-up solution is yet to be determined. The researchers also hope that their study highlights the effects of plastic pollution in all the environments from the ocean’s depths to the highest point on Earth.
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