Top news in Plastic Pollution
Scientists have found microplastics hidden in the snow and streams on the famous climber's mecca, Mount Everest, adding to the concerning body of evidence that no place on the planet is free from these microscopic pollutants.
<p>New analysis of 19 snow and stream water samples collected from the world's highest mountain—standing at 29,029 feet and located at the China-Nepal border— showed the presence of microplastics in every snow sample from five locations, and in three out of eight stream water samples from six locations. The concentrations of microplastics ranged from three to 119 microplastics per liter of snow and zero to two microplastics per liter of stream water. </p><p>The research, funded by the National Geographic Society and Rolex and published today in the journal <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.10.020" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"><em>One Earth</em></a>, is the first to document the presence of microplastics in snow and stream water on Mount Everest, the iconic peak famously first summitted by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 and which was recently cleared of <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/06/06/mount-everest-garbage-pounds-waste-human-bodies/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">24,000 pounds of trash</a>.</p>
<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5NTkyMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTA2OTk5NX0.jCfHZcnIM0crpEekHkkzo7N01dzdx3emDr3fpvRvIfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="1c8c6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fd80d0518070e7d6749e49e9dc555dfa" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Mount Everest plastic pollution expedition" />
The geology team from the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition preps to take a lake sediment core at a glacial lake in the Gokyo region in spring 2019. (Credit: Freddie Wilkinson, National Geographic)<p>"Mount Everest is somewhere that I considered quite pristine and remote. But actually, it's been called the highest junkyard on Earth in the last few years," <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/imogen-napper-a1348965/?originalSubdomain=uk" target="_blank">Imogen Napper</a>, lead author and marine scientist at the University of Plymouth, told EHN. "And knowing that waste is on Mount Everest isn't surprising, but no one had ever looked at microplastics on Everest before—the scary thing is we found microplastic in every single snow sample that we took."</p><p>The most common polymers detected were polyester, acrylic, and nylon fibers, suggesting that the plastic pollution originated from clothing and hiking gear like ropes and tents. The next steps in the research, Napper said, would be to more precisely pinpoint the origins of these fibers, and maybe inspire innovation in industry and design to create better products.</p><p>While Napper and her team did not examine potential effects these fibers could have on the mountain ecosystem, previous studies have shown that microplastics in ice can <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X19304758" target="_blank">increase albedo</a> levels which could amplify ice melt, and in water can transport toxics— such as PCBs or pesticides, which bind to the plastics— to marine life.</p><p>Napper's analysis adds to an unfortunate trend—scientists are realizing that there is likely no place on Earth free of microplastic pollution.</p>
<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5NjA4Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTEzMjcwOH0.CMcdOdq-5DzSQntOn1tqYM3fTrm0Ma_dFxOav4pVGdw/img.jpg?width=980" id="68c37" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="73b72abf14f7c7e48ecb32162110362f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Summit Mount Everest pollution" />
High-elevation expedition climbers and Sherpa wear 'Himalayan suits' madeof waterproof acrylic fibers at the Balcony. Behind them rest disused metal oxygen canisters and other waste. The The National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition was designed to understand this and other environmental impacts. (Credit: Baker Perry/National Geographic(<p><a href="https://www.bcp.fu-berlin.de/en/biologie/arbeitsgruppen/botanik/ag_rillig/mitarbeiter/leiter/rillig/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Matthew Rillig</a>, an ecologist who studies microplastics in terrestrial ecosystems at the Free University of Berlin who was not associated with the new research, told EHN he was not surprised. "There have been a few papers over the years that show that microplastic is basically raining down from the atmosphere," he said. "So I don't know where you'd have to go to get away from that."</p><p>Rillig doubts that there is any place on Earth that is microplastic free, let alone a place that consistently gets hundreds of hikers a year. Regardless, he said, it's good to keep conducting as many of these measurements as we can as he hopes scientists will be able to assess how these microplastics are affecting the ecosystems, and how concentrations of these materials might change in the future.</p>
<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5NjA5Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTAyMTc0NX0.Bs5opcpKwD5iz1tV6JXl0LckWcJzR7D3o8ESKBOYYBs/img.jpg?width=980" id="cb472" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c7ca269ade0ba8129c42a1877a890b5f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Mount Everest pollution" />
Peter Strand, a member of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, takes a sample from a rock outcrop next to the Khumbu Icefall above Everest BaseCamp. (Credit: Mark Fisher, National Geographic)<p>The research was limited in that they took a small number of samples—a product of the logistical challenges in collecting materials in a place like Mount Everest. The inaccessibility of the site makes it a physical strain on the researchers, Napper said.</p><p>Even with a team of 34 scientists conducting research on the mountainside for nearly two months, there was a limit to how much they could carry and take. All the snow and water samples were flown off the mountain by helicopter. They arrived at Napper's lab at the University of Plymouth shortly after, where she conducted microscopy analysis—"unfortunately, the closest I got to Everest was actually my lab in the University of Plymouth," she said, "though I was quite excited, waiting for the parcels to be delivered."</p><p>Napper said she hopes that finding plastic at the top landmasses on Earth spurs scientists and the public alike to take the issue of microplastic pollution more seriously. "This research is not the end of the story, it's very much the first page of a chapter. And hopefully, it will lead to more work on how and why we need to protect our planet."</p>
<p><em>Banner photo: </em><em>The high-altitude expedition team drills the world's highest ice core sample at 8,020 meters above sea level during the <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/perpetual-planet/" target="_blank">National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition</a> in spring 2019. Credit: </em><em>Dirk Collins, National Geographic</em></p><p><em>All photos used with permission from the </em><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/perpetual-planet/" target="_blank"><em>National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition.</em></a></p>
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Young people are often dubbed "Generation Green" – millennials and teenagers championing climate action and environmental values, often with a well-aimed dig at older generations who have failed to prevent a climate catastrophe. Yet it is their baby boomer parents and grandparents who are most likely to act in support of green issues.
We're building an enormous plastics problem.
<p>You may remember that in 2018 some prominent scientists gave us a 12 year deadline to fix climate change. I'm more certain of this bit of environmental punditry than I've been about anything in my life: In the year 2030, American policymakers will have finally caught up to the notion that climate change is every bit the existential crisis that many of us already know it to be.</p><p>But I fear a decade on we'll still be nowhere close to caught up to the notion that we're building an enormous plastics <a href="https://www.ehn.org/plastic-environmental-impact-2501923191.html" target="_self">crisis</a>. </p><p>Sharp reporters, including our own Kristina Marusic, are on to the oil and gas industry's efforts to prolong its own life. Massive projects aiming to turn fracked gas into plastics are on the books for <a href="https://www.ehn.org/coronavirus-oil-and-gas-2645520057.html" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Western Pennsylvania</a> and Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" Chemical Corridor.<u></u></p><p>Shell Chemical's <a href="https://www.timesonline.com/story/news/2020/09/29/cracker-plant-70-built/3573027001/" target="_blank">$6 billion plastic pellets plant</a> in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, will guarantee jobs for decades in the hard-hit region. It will also guarantee a whopping increase in carbon emissions and a lifeline for the oil and gas industry, while providing a primary source of plastic. </p><p>In St. James Parish, Louisiana, local activists continue a <a href="https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/american-south/2020/11/17/cancer-alley-plastics-plant-formosa-halted-us-army-corps-louisiana/6259183002/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">pitched battle</a> against a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics plant along the Mississippi. Both promise to extend the lives of oil, gas, <em>and</em> plastic, despite compelling environmental arguments that all three should be fading out. </p>What else will we still be exhuming ourselves from in 10 years?
<ul><li>The failure of recycling: One of the biggest end-markets for recycled paper has been newsprint. The Pew Research Center estimates that daily newspaper circulation <a href="https://www.journalism.org/fact-sheet/newspapers/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">has halved</a> since the 1980's, and if, unlike me, you still pick one up every day, you know the paper is less than half its former size. For years, plastics recyclers have relied on shipping plastic waste to operations in Africa and Asia (particularly China). Now, plastics designated for recycling bins often ends up in the landfill or municipal incinerator. Recycling has long served to assuage many Americans' guilt that driving an SUV six miles one-way to the recycling center will guarantee them a seat in eco-heaven at the feet of St. Francis of Assissi and Rachel Carson.</li><li>The durability of denial: Facts and logic are often poor weapons against denial. Don't expect climate deniers, COVID-19 deniers, or anti-vaxxers, to ever completely go away. Just look at how heavily the Republicans leaned on Socialist "Red Scare" ad themes from 60 years ago, or racist ads that smacked of the <a href="https://www.vox.com/2018/12/1/18121221/george-hw-bush-willie-horton-dog-whistle-politics" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">1988 Willie Horton</a> ads that helped sink Michael Dukakis.</li><li>Mitigating circumstance: The fever has finally broken on Donald Trump. I'm predicting that his 2024 comeback attempt draws less support than his losing 2020 run, for which he still has not conceded. His choice of the ever-popular and effervescent then-103 year-old Betty White as his 2024 running mate won't likely help. Just kidding, <em>of course</em> she would help.</li></ul>
<p><em>Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at <a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">firstname.lastname@example.org</a></em><em> or <a href="https://twitter.com/pdykstra" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">@pdykstra</a>.</em></p><p><em>His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.</em><br></p><p><em>Banner photo credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/sraaf/3875757919/in/photolist-6UugNp-6UyQwJ-m1aF6S-6UuPye-6ta2an-6UyzR3-7aZK1K-2iBviUv-6UyLfq-7668oq-4oJVpK-bp9kQy-q6fb6r-m19jFg-m19MGt-6UyHEY-ptX1n9-6UyFqb-m19Mhv-6UyNCS-2iuyDff-YSeiJd-b3RsUF-6ssqAU-6UyPsY-aB4xxb-6Vpwgp-xGc3fh-6UuNNT-6UyDKj-ALVVsc-DUptqD-m1aJbE-PShM3Y-3qprPX-6Uuo9v-W2rx7n-m19NPD-21vLpCC-eRWMp8-4pP9DX-5yh62G-74z869-9TTBNQ-c5HPV3-nuiBAn-xpn8VC-8bXEW5-2hHSktT-dCv2X6" target="_blank">Sabrina Raaf/flickr</a></em></p>
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