Microplastics in the death zone

November 20, 2020

Scientists have identified the highest recorded microplastics ever found on Earth - at an altitude of more than 8,000metres, close to the summit of Mount Everest.

Samples collected on the mountain and in the valley below it revealed substantial quantities of polyester, acrylic, nylon, and polypropylene fibres.

The materials are increasingly being used to make the high performance outdoor clothing commonly used by climbers, as well as the tents and climbing ropes used in attempts to climb the mountain.

As a result, researchers have suggested the fibres - the highest of which were found in samples from the Balcony of Mount Everest, 8,440 metres above sea level - could have fragmented from larger items during expeditions to reach the summit.

However, they have also surmised the plastics could have been transported from lower altitudes by the extreme winds which regularly impact the mountain's higher slopes.

The research, published in One Earth, was led by researchers from the University of Plymouth's International Marine Litter Research Unit, working with colleagues from the UK, USA and Nepal. It was supported by the National Geographic Society and Rolex.

Research Fellow and National Geographic Explorer Dr Imogen Napper, the study's lead author, said: "Microplastics are generated by a range of sources and many aspects of our daily lives can lead to microplastics entering the environment. Over the past few years, we have found microplastics in samples collected all over the planet - from the Arctic to our rivers and the deep seas. With that in mind, finding microplastics near the summit of Mount Everest is timely reminder that we need to do more to protect our environment."

The samples were collected in April and May 2019, as part of National Geographic and Rolex's Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, and then analysed in specialist facilities in Plymouth.

Of 19 high elevation samples collected from the Mount Everest region for microplastic analysis, 11 were snow and eight stream water. This included streams along the trekking routes close to the Khumbu Glacier, in the snow at Everest Base Camp, and high into the Death Zone near the mountain's summit.

The highest quantities (79 microplastic fibres per litre of snow) were found at Base Camp, where summit expeditions are based for periods of up to 40 days. However, evidence was also found at Camps 1 and 2 on the climbing route, with 12 microplastic fibres per litre of snow recorded from the Balcony.

There were lower quantities in streams leading down from the mountain to the Sagarmatha National Park, with scientists saying this could be due to the continuous flow of water created by the region's glaciers.

The first confirmed summiting of Mount Everest in 1953 coincided with the global rise to prominence of plastics and their use in society.

From a time in the 1950s when it had very few visitors, the Sagarmatha National Park (which includes the mountain) welcomed more than 45,000 visitors in 2016, while in 2019, climbing permits for Everest were issued in Nepal.

Over the same period, the versatility of plastic materials has resulted in a substantial increase in their use from five million tonnes globally in the 1950s to over 330 million tonnes in 2020.

Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, said: "Since the 1950s, plastics have been increasingly used in all kinds of products because of their practicality and durability. However, it is those qualities which are, in large part, creating the global environmental crisis we are seeing today. There is now global recognition of the need to take action, with Nepal itself imposing regulations on climbing expeditions to try and curb the environmental problems created by waste. This study and our continued research only emphasises the importance of designing materials that have the benefits of plastics without the lasting and harmful legacy."
-end-


University of Plymouth

Related Plastics Articles from Brightsurf:

Bioplastics no safer than other plastics
Bioplastics contain substances that are as toxic as those in ordinary plastics.

A first-of-its-kind catalyst mimics natural processes to break down plastics
A team of scientists led by the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory has developed a first-of-its-kind catalyst that is able to process polyolefin plastics, types of polymers widely used in things like plastic grocery bags, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, toys, and food containers.

Plastics, waste and recycling: It's not just a packaging problem
Discussions of the growing plastic waste problem often focus on reducing the volume of single-use plastic packaging items such as bags, bottles, tubs and films.

'Critical' questions over disease risks from ocean plastics
Key knowledge gaps exist in our understanding of how ocean microplastics transport bacteria and viruses -- and whether this affects the health of humans and animals, researchers say.

Plastics, pathogens and baby formula: What's in your shellfish?
The first landmark study using next-generation technology to comprehensively examine contaminants in oysters in Myanmar reveals alarming findings: the widespread presence of human bacterial pathogens and human-derived microdebris materials, including plastics, kerosene, paint, talc and milk supplement powders.

Chemists make tough plastics recyclable
MIT chemists have developed a way to modify thermoset plastics with a chemical linker that makes it much easier to recycle them, but still allows them to retain their mechanical strength.

The many lifetimes of plastics
Many of us have seen informational posters at parks or aquariums specifying how long plastics bags, bottles, and other products last in the environment.

Recycling plastics together, simple and fast
Scientists successfully blended different types of plastics to be recycled together, providing a solution to the environmental problem of plastic waste and adding economic value to plastic materials.

Water replaces toxins: Green production of plastics
A new way to synthesize polymers, called hydrothermal synthesis, can be used to produce important high-performance materials in a way which is much better for the environment.

Untwisting plastics for charging internet-of-things devices
Scientists are unraveling the properties of electricity-conducting plastics so they can be used in future energy-harvesting devices.

Read More: Plastics News and Plastics Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.