A recent scientific study has shown that the Arctic Ocean is polluted with tiny microplastic fibers. The fibers were found all through the Arctic. The most likely source of the pollution is laundry from Europe and North America.
Microplastics are tiny bits or threads of plastic, often too small to be seen. In recent years, microplastics have been found almost everywhere, from the North pole to Antarctica, from the top of the Earth’s tallest mountain to the deepest point in the sea.
In a recent study led by a group called Ocean Wise, researchers made four trips across the Arctic Ocean. They took 71 samples from between 10 and 26 feet (3-8 meters) below the ocean’s surface. They took 26 more samples, some from more than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) below the surface.
They found microplastics in all but one of the 97 samples taken, with an average of about 40 microplastic particles in every cubic meter (roughly 265 gallons, or 1,000 liters).
To identify the particles they found, the scientists used a tool based on infrared light – a kind of light that humans are unable to see. This tool allowed them to figure out not just which bits were plastic, but exactly what kind of plastic they were.
Over 92% of the microplastics found were small threads, called microfibers. About 73% of these fibers were made of a plastic known as polyester. The researchers studied the size and color of the fibers and found they matched polyester used in clothing.
The study found far more microfibers near the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean than near the Pacific side. The fibers on the Atlantic side were also newer.
The team believes this suggests that the fibers come from Europe and North America. Peter Ross, who led the research, said, “With these polyester fibers, we’ve…created a cloud throughout the world’s oceans.”
Most samples were taken from an ocean layer where lots of sea life finds food. The scientists believe this means that many kinds of sea life, from the smallest to the largest, are likely to be affected by the pollution.
So how do these microfibers get into the sea? They break off when clothes are washed and are emptied into sewers as washing machines drain.
One recent study suggested that laundry from the US and Canada carries around 7,716,000 pounds (3,500,000 kilograms) of plastic microfibers into the sea every year.
One way to avoid sending so much plastic into the sea is for clothing makers to cut back on man-made materials, especially those that easily break down into microfibers.
The way we do laundry also matters. Washing clothes less often will help. There are also special filters for washing machines which help trap microfibers before they escape.
Currently, people have to buy these filters and add them to their washing machines. If every washing machine came with such a filter built-in, it could make a big difference.
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