The problem with plastics is that they can end up anywhere – including the most remote and inaccessible seas in the world such as off the coast of Antarctica.
The seas around continental Antarctica are the last place on Earth that scientists have looked for plastic, mainly because they’re so difficult to get to.
‘We were going to the Amundsen Sea onboard the RRS James Clark Ross to collect biological specimens for the first time ever, and were well placed to look for plastics at the same time,’ explains David Barnes from the British Antarctic Survey, who led the research.
Barnes linked up with other researchers from Greenpeace’s MV Esperanza and onboard the ice patrol vessel HMS Endurance, making an unusual collaboration, to look for one of the most abundant and peristant scourges of the global ocean – floating debris. They found that rubbish made of plastic was most common compared with debris made from metal, rubber or glass.
They report in Marine Environmental Research how they found fishing buoys and a plastic cup in the Durmont D’Urville and Davis seas off the coast of east Antarctica and fishing buoys and plastic packaging in the Amundsen Sea in western Antarctica.
Although some countries have highlighted plastic bags as a serious environmental concern, of the 51 pieces of debris spotted in the South Atlantic, only two were plastic bags. They found no evidence of natural debris like branches, shells or plants. As there are no scientific research stations or other bases anywhere near the Amundsen Sea, this suggests that the plastic debris must have got there via ocean currents.
Plastics harm wildlife in a number of ways. Plastic banding often ends up round seals’ or birds’ necks. Not only that, but the material’s surface easily absorbs toxic organic pollutants. When the stuff degrades into minute fragments, tiny marine creatures like zooplankton inadvertently feed on them.
‘The possibility of tiny pieces of plastic reaching the seafloor is especially worrying, because the continental shelves around Antarctica are dominated by suspension feeders, which are essentially at the bottom of the food chain. But what’s really worrying about plastics getting to Antarctica, apart from aesthetics, is the fact that they can carry non-native animals. We don’t have this problem in Antarctica yet, but with warming seas, they stand a much better chance of surviving,’ says Barnes.
The fact that plastic debris is floating into the most far-flung of places is a strong measure of man’s influence on the surface of the planet.
So please remember, always dispose of your rubbish in the correct way – in a recycling bin