New study shows: plastic was already at the North Pole in the 1960s

28 January, 2022

Plastics in various forms in the sea, and their effects on the environment, have been the subject of much research and debate. But nanoplastics – pieces so small we can’t see them with the naked eye – are less well known. A team of scientists who have studied these particles can now conclude that plastic has been in the polar ice for a long time.

In a new study, researchers have found that nanoplastics are present in the ice at the South and North Poles. It is previously known that there are microplastics in the water around the poles, but this time the researchers investigated whether there are also nanoplastics , which are only one billionth of a meter in size, in the ice itself. Thomas Röckmann, a researcher at the University of Utrecht, is one of the authors of the study.

– No one else has investigated this before, as far as we know. In our research, we found that there was plastic in the ice in Greenland as early as the 1960s.

The most common plastic particles come from so-called PE plastics. This is the kind of plastic we find in disposable items, such as plastic bags and food packaging. The second most common plastic was PET plastic, which is used in PET bottles, but also in clothing. Traces of tyres have also been found.

We breathe in nanoplastic

– It’s hard to know exactly where all the particles are coming from, when you’re so far away from civilisation. We can’t be sure whether the particles have arrived at the poles through the air or the sea. But it shows that the plastic can travel long distances.

There aren’t many studies on the effects of nanoplastics today, so Röckmann says it’s important to look into them.

– Even if we don’t see them, plastic particles are everywhere, even in the air we breathe. But we still don’t know to what extent our bodies are affected by the increased amount of nanoplastics in the air,” he says.

However, other researchers have found that nanoplastics are more toxic than microplastics. The authors of the nanoplastics study mention that marine animals that ingest the plastic particles may die prematurely and have more difficulty growing. Even humans, they write, can get inflammations if they are exposed to the plastic.

greenland ice
Scientists found plastic from the 1960s in the ice of Greenland. Photo: Simon Stanford

Plastic in the air can be positive

Other researchers have investigated whether there may be positive aspects to an increase in the amount of plastic particles in our air. For example, whether they can reflect away sunlight and whether this can affect global warming.

– It may be positive for us, we don’t know. But then we see that there can be problems from a biological perspective as well, when these particles end up in our lungs and blood. We still don’t know enough about how dangerous this is yet. It may not even be that bad. But that’s precisely why we need more research on the subject,” says Thomas Röckmann.

Because we don’t yet know the long-term effects of nanoplastics, the researcher is concerned about the increase in plastic consumption.

– The EU has been trying to make changes to reduce plastic use. I guess it’s updated almost every day. But there are still countries where people don’t think about this as much and don’t see plastics as a hazard, and that’s a problem.

Röckmann says that even if we stop consuming plastic and manage to remove it from our nature, the “invisible” plastic particles will remain.

– Plastic pollution is a bigger problem than the mountains of garbage we see in the sea,” says Thomas Röckmann.

Text: Fanny Jönsson
Photo: Simon Stanford

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