Arctic microplastics

‘Over 70% of Arctic ocean plastic microfibre pollution is coming from our clothes’

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

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Published: 16 January 2021

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod

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Synthetic fibres make up approximately 92% of microplastic pollution found in near-surface seawater samples from across the Arctic Ocean – about 73% of those fibres are polyester and resemble fibres used in clothing and textiles.

These findings, and others, are detailed in a scientific paper from Ocean Wise, published in the prestigious international scientific journal Nature Communications.

The vulnerability of the Arctic

Led by Ocean Wise with strong collaborative support from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the research paper – ‘Pervasive distribution of polyester fibres in the Arctic Ocean is driven by Atlantic inputs’ – represents the most comprehensive study of Arctic microplastics ever undertaken.

Ocean Wise analysed samples from 71 locations across the European and North American Arctic, including the North Pole.

Samples were collected by One Ocean Expeditions RV Akademik Ioffe and by Fisheries and Oceans Canada Arctic programmes aboard the Canadian icebreakers CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

These vessels travelled more than 19,000 km across the Arctic Ocean during their 2016 expeditions.

‘The Arctic Ocean, while distant to many of us, has long provided food and a way of life for Inuit communities.

‘The study again underscores the vulnerability of the Arctic to environmental change and to pollutants transported from the south. It also provides important baseline data that will guide policy makers in mitigation of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans, with synthetic fibres emerging as a priority.’

DR PETER ROSS
Lead author of the study, special advisor to Ocean Wise and adjunct professor at Earth, Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences at the University of British Columbia

Polyester fibres from the Atlantic

Ocean Wise also analysed water samples up to a depth of 1,015 metres at six sites in the Beaufort Sea.

From their analysis, the authors calculated the average concentration of microplastics to be around 40 microplastic particles per cubic metre.

They also observed almost three times more microplastic particles in the eastern Arctic compared with the western Arctic, suggesting that new polyester fibres are being delivered to the eastern Arctic Ocean by currents from the Atlantic.

In other words, an important source of microfibres in the Arctic is likely the countries surrounding the Atlantic Ocean.

‘We are seeing a lot of noise from the fashion industry about its sustainability efforts but the omnipresence of plastic in our clothing has gone under the radar. 

‘This new research confirms that over 70 percent of Arctic ocean plastic microfibre pollution is coming from our clothes. Solutions are available today – not in some distant future – and we need new legislation to encourage and accelerate change in the fashion world.

‘Washing machines pump out trillions of fibres. Filters already exist and yet only France is enforcing that they are fitted to all washing machines in future. 

‘The air we breath is also polluted with clothing microfibres. We need big fashion to step up, show real leadership and meet the issue of plastic in fashion head on, with transparency and speed.’

SIAN SUTHERLAND
A Plastic Planet co-founder,

Textiles and oceans

The research highlights the role that textiles, laundry and wastewater discharge has in the contamination of the world’s oceans.

It builds on Ocean Wise’s previous research showing the large numbers of synthetic microfibres in municipal wastewater and the prevalence of plastic microfibres in Arctic Beluga whale intestines.

‘Ocean Wise continues to be at the forefront of solution-oriented ocean microplastic research in partnership with the apparel and retail sectors, government agencies, and the Arctic Inuit and Inuvialuit communities.

‘Reducing fibre releases from textiles represents a significant opportunity to curb marine microfibre pollution. And together with Ocean Wise’s Microfiber Partnership, some forward-looking companies and initiatives are looking for ways to address this problem.’

DR ANNA POSACKA
Co-author of the study and research manager of the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab, the facility that carried out microplastic analysis

This study builds on a current partnership between Ocean Wise, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the University of British Columbia to examine the effects of various textile microfibres on organisms at the base of a coastal food web.

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