Plastic waste reaches the last wilderness

The Antarctic has so far been considered one of the most pristine regions on our planet. But researchers have now discovered traces of microplastics and hazardous chemicals in snow and ice samples brought back from an expedition earlier this year. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

Greenpeace has discovered plastic waste, including microplastics, in the Antarctic. (Image credit: Liam Quinn via Flickr)

An expedition to the Antarctic has returned with the shocking realization that even the so-called last wilderness on Earth is now contaminated with microplastics and chemicals. The expedition led by Greenpeace came back with water and snow samples, most of which showed traces of pollution.

‘Not what we wanted to find’

“It’s not what we wanted to find,” wrote Louisa Casson, who participated in the expedition for Greenpeace. When the environmental organization set sail to the Antarctic earlier this year, it was looking for incredible wildlife: “tottering penguins, majestic whales, soaring seabirds”.

“But even in these incredibly remote waters, we couldn’t escape from that scourge of our seas which is making all the headlines: plastic pollution.”

The samples were collected during a three-month expedition in the Antarctic from January to March 2018. Greenpeace undertook scientific research and seafloor submarine dives to explore the wildlife in the depths of the sea.

World is facing a plastic waste crisis

The Greenpeace expedition found microplastics in seven of the eight water samples tested. Seven of the nine snow samples contained detectable concentrations of chemicals. According to Greenpeace, the chemicals discovered are widely used in many industrial processes and consumer products. The snow samples gathered included freshly fallen snow, indicating that hazardous chemicals were deposited from the atmosphere.

A recent UN report published last week also concluded that the world is facing a plastic waste crisis. Some 9 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced worldwide, only a fraction of which has been recycled. “Most ends up in landfills, dumps or in the environment.”

Antarctic must be off-limits to human activity

The environmentalists also found “all kinds of waste from the fishing industry” in the Antartic. “Buoys, nets and tarpaulins drifted in between icebergs, which was really sad to see,” said Frida Bengtsson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic campaign.

Her team fished what they could out of the water, but their discovery made clear to them that vast parts of this area must be off-limits to human activity if the world is to protect the Antarctic’s wildlife.

“We may think of the Antarctic as a remote and pristine wilderness, but from pollution and climate change to industrial krill fishing, humanity’s footprint is clear,” added Bengtsson.

Greenpeace is therefore calling for action at the source to stop these pollutants from ending up in the Antarctic in the first place, as well establishing as an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary to protect penguins, whales and the entire ecosystem.

Plans for world’s largest marine reserve

The expedition is part of a Greenpeace campaign to create another Antarctic reserve in the Southern Ocean. At 1.8 million square kilometres, the new reserve would be five times the size of Germany – and the largest marine sanctuary on Earth.

The idea for the reserve was originally put forward by the EU and will go before a conference of the Antarctic nations – the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources or CCAMLR – in October.

In 2016, some 1.55 million square kilometres in the Southern Ocean was declared a marine protection area, but the protections were only set for 35 years.

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