"We are finding first and foremost filamentous plastic particles of different colors and types. These findings show that households in Svalbard and in the Arctic are contributing to the discharge of plastic waste, and perhaps to a greater extent than we like to think about," said Jan H. Sundet, an oceanographer at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (IMR).
'Not aware of it'
Together with Dorte Herzke from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), Sundet studied emissions from Longyearbyen and sediment samples from the seabed in Adventfjorden.
Their work is not finished, but their findings so far are thought-provoking for environmentally conscious explorers: the wastewater from Longyearbyen contains huge amounts microplastics and the lion's share of this originates from outdoor clothing. According to the researchers, more than 100 million particles go out every day.
Researcher Jan H. Sundet. FOTO: Ann Merete Hjelset, IMR
"It is reasonable to assume that most of these particles come from synthetic clothes, especially fleece fabrics," Herzke and Sundet wrote in an article published this week in Svalbardposten. "Longyearbyen is well among the towns in Norway with the highest existences of just such outdoor clothing such as fleece jackets, Gore-Tex clothing, etc."
"There have been studies conducted about the washing of fleece and it turned out that a single washing of a fleece jacket can release thousands of tiny particles," Sundet told Svalbardposten. "There are a lot of microplastics that disappear out of clothes, especially fleece."
Most of today's outdoor clothing is synthetic, inside and out. As a result, the researchers aren't really surprised by their findings.
"But I don't think people are aware of it," Sundet said. "I do not think they think about it. I want people to see that even if you live a good life in relation to pollution there are things you cannot see."
A solution for people wanting to alter their habits may be switching to wool and cotton.
Magnet for toxins
The problem is not necessarily the particles themselves, but that they absorb other toxic substances.
That means fish, bottomfeeders and birds that ingest microplastics are exposed to other toxins. Particles going into the seawater contribute to increasing the absorption of biotoxins among sea creatures.
"Our concern is situated on the chemical level," Sundet said. "There has been quite a lot of research about what microplastics mean for animals. Microplastics act as a magnet for other nasty chemicals, toxic substances, which are dissolved in the water."
The researchers will analyze the consequences for wildlife in Adventfjorden when all the data in place.
"One eventually develops a very strict waste classification system," Sundet said. "At the same time there are enormous amounts of microplastics out in the fjord."
Sundet was responsible for a report a few years ago concluding 20 percent of the crabs IMR examined during a research cruise in the Barents Sea had plastic bits in their stomaches.
"Originally, we had a plan to study the spider crab, but we failed to obtain it," he said. "We believe it is easier to find plastic particles with crab and there's a lot of it in Svalbard."
Spider crabs provide answers
The researchers have, however, collected mussels a good distance from the discharge point that show traces of plastic.
In addition, they took samples of mussels from the harbor. That is the place in Adventfjorden that appears to be the most polluted, which is probably related to ship traffic.
The collection of samples occurred in June of 2015 and the project is being financed by the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund. The goal is to determine the quantity of microplastics produced by human activity.
Sample from Adventfjorden: A clam with micro plastic from synthetic clothing. FOTO: IMR
Looking ahead, the researchers hope to study other areas in Svalbard to obtain a better understanding of the problems related to microplastics. That will help reveal how plastic breaks down into microplastics around islands in the High Arctic, so research about microplastics in Svalbard is therefore only the beginning.
When asked how they are confident that the largest source of microplastics outside Longyearbyen is textiles, Sundet replied:
"In the largest-size category we have examined, it is obvious that it is clothing. A couple of samples that differ sharply, and show that we find plastic in the wastewater and sediments, makes us certain."
In a statement Gore Fabrics writes that it is misleading that Gore-Tex products are a major source of micro plastics.
«Off-shore micro-fiber pollution seems to have two major contributors: plastic consumables shredded by the shorelines, and microfibers from washing textiles. Consumables often become millimeter-size, while fibers are micrometer-sized. That is why fibers are only a small part of the plastic mass but most of the plastic count.
An EU Study (MERMAIDS) finds that fiber emission from washing machines depends on a number of factors: textile construction, fiber type, washing cycle, loading, as well as detergents.
Our products are valued for outstanding durability. We design fabrics to resist wear and tear and retain integrity over a large number of wash cycles. This is the basis for our "Guaranteed to Keep You Dry®" promise to the consumer, which we give without a time limit.
Given the durability of our products and the kind of textiles we use for the GORE-TEX® products portfolio, we don’t see any indication to believe that GORE-TEX® products would be a significant or major source of microfibers in the environment. Nevertheless, we are evaluating this issue to make responsible choices and take careful action», they write.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini