After microplastics earlier in the deepest trough on Earth have been discovered, researchers have now also found them near the top of Mount Everest.
It’s a bizarre find. Never before have microplastics (pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters) been found at such a height. And while Mount Everest is known to be heavily polluted by the many people who try to conquer the mountain every year, the discovery of microplastics at 8,440 meters above sea level is astonishing, says researcher Imogen Napper. Scientias.nl. “I was really amazed that we found microplastics in every snow sample we collected.”
Even on the balcony
It is the first time that scientists have researched the concentration of microplastics high on Mount Everest. They sampled the mountain at 19 different places and heights. They found the largest concentration of microplastics (79 fibers per liter of snow) in the base camp. But even on the Balcony section of Mount Everest – located just below the summit – every gallon of snow was about 12 tiny pieces of plastic.
Never before have researchers encountered microplastics at such a great height. “That may sound exciting, but it means that microplastics are now found in the depths of the ocean up to the highest mountains on Earth,” Napper warns.
Clothing and tents
The researchers not only investigated how much plastic could be found on the mountain, but also what types of plastic it was. In addition to polyester, they also found a lot of nylon and polypropylene. “These materials are increasingly used to make clothing, as well as tents and climbing ropes, which the mountaineers use a lot during their attempts to conquer the mountain. Most of the microplastics detected consisted of fibers. These are believed to have come from that clothing and equipment. ”
In 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay managed for the first time – with the help of an oxygen device – to climb the top of Mount Everest and return alive. Before that, there were only a few who ventured up the mountain every year, but after 1953, Mount Everest became increasingly popular. And in 2016, the mountain welcomed no fewer than 45,000 (!) Visitors. With the number of people, the waste on the mountain also increased. And it is easy to guess that a large part of that waste consists of plastic. Because where in the 1950s only about 5 million tons of plastic were used per year, in 2020 that was more than 330 million tons of plastic. “Since the 1950s, plastics have been increasingly used in a variety of products because of their practicality and durability,” said researcher Richard Thompson. “But it’s those traits that are also largely at the root of the global environmental crisis we see today.”
When you think of plastic pollution, you quickly think of visible, larger pieces of plastic that you come across along highways, on the beach or in the sea. Efforts to reduce the impact that plastic pollution has on the environment have often focused on these larger pieces of plastic as well. For example, people are encouraged to collect their plastic separately so that it can be recycled and the use of plastic bags is discouraged. That is very important, but according to Napper it is also time for the microplastics to be tackled. “Microplastics are generated from a wide variety of sources and many aspects of our daily lives lead to microplastics ending up in the environment.” For example, microplastics are released when wearing and washing synthetic clothing. “In recent years we have found microplastics in samples collected worldwide: from the Arctic to the rivers and deep seas. With that in mind, the discovery of microplastics near the summit of Mount Everest is a reminder that we need to do more to protect our environment. ” Since cleaning up the tiny pieces of plastic is impossible at this point, the focus should be on preventing the tiny pieces of plastic from being released. For example, by designing fabrics differently or replacing plastic fibers with natural fibers whenever possible.
“I am concerned about the large amount of microplastics we find in natural habitats,” said Napper. But she is still optimistic that we can fix the problem. “There are currently many promising developments in the industry. We have to keep momentum now. ” Thompson agrees. “This study and follow-up study shows yet again the importance of designing materials that have the benefits of plastic, but not the same long-lasting and harmful legacy.”
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