Microplastics have been found at the highest recorded altitude of more than 8,400 meters, just below the summit of Mount Everest. In a study published by Cell Press, scientists describe what they discovered in snow and stream samples from the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition.
While tiny plastic particles are known to be prevalent in the ocean, they have not been as well-documented on land, especially on remote mountaintops. Study first author Imogen Napper is a National Geographic Explorer based at the University of Plymouth who is described by her colleagues as a “plastic detective.”
“Mount Everest has been described as ‘the world’s highest junkyard,'” said Napper. “Microplastics haven’t been studied on the mountain before, but they’re generally just as persistent and typically more difficult to remove than larger items of debris.”
“I didn’t know what to expect in terms of results, but it really surprised me to find microplastics in every single snow sample I analyzed. Mount Everest is somewhere I have always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener.”
Some members of the research team joined the 2019 expedition and climbed Mount Everest to collect samples, and others were involved in the analysis of the samples.
“The closest I got to Mount Everest was in my lab at University of Plymouth in the UK,” said Napper. She set out to investigate whether there was plastic on the mountain and, if so, what type of plastic was there.
“The samples showed significant quantities of polyester, acrylic, nylon, and polypropylene fibers,” said Napper. “Those materials are increasingly being used to make the high-performance outdoor clothing climbers use as well as tents and climbing ropes, so we highly suspect that these types of items are the major source of pollution rather than things like food and drink containers.”
Although the study has confirmed the presence of microplastics on Mount Everest, the best way to address the problem and clean up the pollution has not yet been determined.
“Currently, environmental efforts tend to focus on reducing, reusing, and recycling larger items of waste. This is important, but we also need to start focusing on deeper technological solutions that focus on microplastics, like changing fabric design and incorporating natural fibers instead of plastic when possible.”
The researchers hope their work will help clarify the extent to which plastic pollution jeopardizes all environments, not just the ocean.
“These are the highest microplastics discovered so far,” said Napper. “While it sounds exciting, it means that microplastics have been discovered from the depths of the ocean all the way to the highest mountain on Earth. With microplastics so ubiquitous in our environment, it’s time to focus on informing appropriate environmental solutions. We need to protect and care for our planet.”
The study is published in the journal One Earth.