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Plastic pollution is increasingly invading Antarctica

Plastic pollution is increasingly invading Antarctica. Two long-term studies from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have measured the extent of plastic pollution in Antarctica. The collective findings show an increased prevalence of plastic waste and highlight the impact that plastic pollution has on animals in remote polar habitats. 

Over the last three decades, BAS scientists have collected marine debris on the beaches of Bird Island and Signy Island. The amount of debris has increased, and the majority of 10,000 items recovered by the team was plastic waste. 

“While we found an increase in the quantity of beached plastic debris, recent surveys have shown increasing numbers of smaller pieces. This might be due to the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic which have been in the Southern Ocean for a long time,” said study lead author Dr. Claire Waluda.

“It’s not all bad news. With the amount of plastic recovered on beaches peaking in the 1990s, our study suggests that the measures to restrict the amount of debris entering the Southern Ocean have been successful, at least in part. But more still needs to be done.” 

“By putting our data into oceanographic models we will learn more about the sources and sinks of plastic waste and how it is transported into and around the Southern Ocean.”

In the second study, the researchers looked at plastic waste ingested by three species of albatrosses, including the wandering albatross on Bird Island. Seabirds often mistakenly ingest plastic and other debris while hunting for natural prey. 

The experts found significant variation in the type of plastic garbage ingested by different seabirds. Wandering albatrosses and giant petrels had primarily consumed food-related packaging, which is likely due to their tendency to forage behind fishing boats. Plastic waste is frequently discarded or lost from the vessels. 

“Our study adds to a growing body of evidence that fishing and other vessels make a major contribution to plastic pollution,” said study lead author Professor Richard Phillips. “It’s clear that marine plastics are a threat to seabirds and other wildlife and more needs to be done to improve waste-management practices and compliance monitoring both on land and on vessels in the South Atlantic.”

“There is some good news, we found that black-browed albatrosses typically ingested relatively low levels of debris, suggesting that plastic pollution in the Antarctic waters where they feed remains relatively low.”

The study is published in the journal Environment International.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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