A new study finds that the microplastic pollution that affects the Arctic is essentially made of plastic fibers, and more particularly polyester fibers. This comes from washing clothes made with these materials.
Plastic pollution is one of the major ecological challenges of the 21st century. It could well triple by 2040. Some scientists even define an “era of plastic” as one of the archaeological markers of our time because of the waste we leave in the ground. Beyond even visible waste, there is a more invisible plastic pollution: microplastics – microscopic particles of plastic material that spread in soil and water.
These microplastics massively contaminate the oceans. They pile up until in the depths, and can be ingested by many species as much as they can be found on our plates. In a published study in the review NatureOn January 12, 2021, scientists from the Canadian Ocean Wise Conservation Association looked more specifically at the situation in the Arctic, in order to measure the extent and origin of microplastic pollution in this region.
They sampled tailings 2 to 8 meters below the water surface across 71 sites in North America, Northern Europe, and the North Pole. In the Beaufort Sea, off the coasts of Alaska and Canada, they sampled up to 1,000 meters below the surface.
73% polyester fibers
According to the measurements obtained, published in Nature, the Arctic Ocean condenses 40 microplastic particles per cubic meter. The scientists analyzed, using infrared spectroscopy known as IRTF, the composition of these particles. As a result, 92.3% of microplastics found in arctic surveys are plastic fibers. Of these fibers, 73.3% are polyester.
The authors also analyzed the currents to better understand this high concentration. ” The abundance of particles is correlated with longitude, with nearly three times as many particles in the Eastern Arctic than in the Western Arctic. Polyester accounts for 73% of all synthetic fibers, with an east-to-west shift in infrared signatures, indicating potential alteration of fibers away from their source. “, Write the scientists in their paper.
This ” potential damage to fibers far from their source Is a key aspect in their study. Because pollution is essentially not local. The authors suggest that polyester fibers ” relatively cool “Find themselves routed to the eastern Arctic Ocean” via inputs from the Atlantic Ocean and / or atmospheric transport from the South “. Clearly, the path is as follows: the fibers reach the waters at the level of the Atlantic, then are pulled towards the Arctic, by sea and atmospheric currents, degrading into ever finer microparticles during this process.
From our clothes to the oceans
The authors recall in their study that these polyester fibers seem, because of their composition, to come from textiles, namely the fibers rejected by our clothes in wastewater. It is indeed the washing process, in washing machines in particular, that appears to be the crux of the problem. When washing, clothes made from synthetic fibers – polyester is polyethylene terephthalate, plastic – will release some of their fibers in the drainage circuits.
From this point of departure, the microplastics reach the sea, the ocean and travel to the Arctic.
« Washing of clothes made from synthetic materials has been identified as a potentially important source of microscopic fibers for the environment », Noted a study published in 2016 in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, measuring only up to 700,000 fibers for a machine loaded with 6kg of clothing made with this type of material. We find a similar finding in a study published in 2019 in Scientific Reports, leading to the conclusion that each wash, depending on the strong presence or not of synthetic fiber clothing, can release between 640,000 and 1,500,000 plastic microfibers.
Based on more comprehensive work published in 2020 in PLOS, which also includes hand washes in addition to machines, 167,000 tonnes of microplastic fibers flow into waterways each year. The authors of this study also showed that wastewater treatment is insufficient to limit the flow of microplastics into the ocean, which has also been demonstrated. in many other works, meaning that the only solution is to reduce the use of plastic materials.
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