The Arctic Has Become Riddled With Synthetic Clothing Fibres

Samples were collected aboard two Canadian icebreakers, CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Image courtesy of Fisheries and Oceans Canada/Arthi Ramachandra 

The Arctic has become riddled with microplastic. When most people imagine microplastic pollution, they might think of shards of soda bottles, plastic bags, and an assortment of other trash. However, a new study has shown that the majority of microplastic pollution in the Arctic is actually from clothing. 

Synthetic fibers make up around 92 percent of microplastic pollution found in near-surface seawater samples from across the Arctic Ocean and about 73 percent of those fibers are polyester thought to originate from clothing and textiles, according to new research published in the journal Nature Communications.

"The Arctic Ocean, while distant to many of us, has long provided` food and a way of life for Inuit communities” 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, said in a statement.

“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 policymakers in mitigation of microplastic pollution in the world’s oceans, with synthetic fibers emerging as a priority,” adds Dr Ross.

Microscopy image of plastic fibers found in Arctic seawater. Image courtesy of Ocean Wise Conservation Organization. 

Scientists from the non-profit group Ocean Wise took water samples from 71 locations across the European and North American Arctic, including the North Pole, as well as water samples up to a depth of 1,015 meters (3,330 feet) at six sites in the Beaufort Sea. 

They found an average of around 40 microplastic particles per cubic meter across the whole of the Arctic, although they discovered three times more microplastic particles in the eastern Arctic compared to the west. This, the researchers say, indicates polyester fibers are being delivered to the eastern Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic. Although the Pacific also adds to the stream of microplastics, less water is transported from this ocean to the northern polar region, compared to the Atlantic. Different types of plastic were also found at different depths, most likely an indication of how dense they are. 

Much of these fibers made their way into the natural environment through laundry and clothes washing. A study from 2016 found that each domestic clothes wash can release more than 700,000 microscopic synthetic fibers into wastewater. The researchers of this new study point out that a single wastewater treatment plant can pump out as much as 21 billion microfibres into the environment annually. From here, they make their way into river systems and eventually the ocean, where they are transported across the world through oceanic currents or atmospheric transport. 

The researchers conclude their study by saying they hope the growing body of research on microplastic fibers from clothing might spark some changes from policy-makers and manufacturers. Their team is already working with the retail sectors, government agencies, and the Arctic Inuit and Inuvialuit communities to try to find some solutions to this ever-growing problem. 


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