Greenpeace expedition finds plastic pollution and hazardous chemicals in remote Antarctic waters

by Perry Wheeler

June 6, 2018

London – Laboratory analysis of water and snow samples, gathered during a recent Greenpeace expedition to the Antarctic, has revealed the presence of microplastics and persistent chemicals, respectively, in the majority of samples tested.

“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,” said Frida Bengtsson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic campaign. “These results show that even the most remote habitats of the Antarctic are contaminated with microplastic waste and persistent hazardous chemicals. We need action at source, to stop these pollutants from ending up in the Antarctic in the first place, and we need an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary to give space for penguins, whales, and the entire ecosystem to recover from the pressures they’re facing.”

Seven of the eight sea-surface water samples tested contained microplastic, such as microfibers (at least one microplastic element per 1 liter sample). In addition, nine samples were taken using a manta trawl and analyzed for microplastics. Microplastic fragments were detected in two samples. Seven of the nine snow samples tested contained detectable concentrations of the persistent chemicals per- and polyfluorinated alkylated substances, or PFASs. These chemicals are widely used in many industrial processes and consumer products and have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues in wildlife. The snow samples gathered included freshly-fallen snow, suggesting the hazardous chemicals were deposited from the atmosphere.

There have been few studies about microplastics in Antarctic waters, and this analysis provides valuable new information on the presence and status of such contamination in the region.

“Plastic has now been found in all corners of our oceans, from the Antarctic to the Arctic and at the deepest point of the ocean, the Mariana Trench. We need urgent action from corporations and governments to stop producing the single use plastic items which are flowing into our seas,” said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA. “We also need a network of fully protected ocean sanctuaries to increase the resiliency of marine ecosystems to the impacts of climate change, industrial fishing, and plastic pollution.”

The samples were gathered during a three-month Greenpeace expedition to the Antarctic from January to March 2018. Greenpeace was conducting scientific research, including landmark submarine dives to little-known Antarctic seabed ecosystems, as part of a campaign to create an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary. At695,000 square miles, it would be five times the size of Germany and the largest protected area on Earth. The sanctuary is being proposed by the EU and a decision will be made at the forthcoming meeting of the Antarctic Ocean Commission (CCAMLR) in October.



For the full technical report on the sampling and analysis, see:

Frida Bengtsson is a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic.

Microplastics are defined as small pieces of plastic less than 5mm in diameter. Primary microplastics, like plastic microbeads, are directly manufactured. Secondary microplastics result from larger plastic items, like bottles or bags, breaking down over time. Microplastic fibres can also come from items of clothing and textiles.

A manta trawl is a net system used for sampling the surface of the ocean.

Photo and video:

For photo and video of the plastic and chemical research work during Greenpeace’s Antarctic expedition, see:

Media contacts:

Luke Massey, Protect the Antarctic Global Communications Lead, Greenpeace UK: [email protected], +44 (0) 7973 873 155

Greenpeace International Press Desk: [email protected], +31 (0) 20 718 2470 (available 24 hours)

Perry Wheeler

By Perry Wheeler

Perry Wheeler is a senior communications specialist at Greenpeace USA.

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