This article is brought to you through The European Sting’s collaboration with the World Economic Forum.
Author: Charlotte Edmond, Senior Writer, Educational Content
- Nanoplastic has for the first time been discovered at both poles, indicating that these tiny particles are widespread.
- They form when larger plastics break down and are likely spread by air currents.
- We are only just beginning to understand the damage caused by small plastic particles, which have been shown to damage the cells of humans and other organisms.
From the summit of Everest to the arctic ice, there are traces of human-made pollutants, even in the most remote and pristine corners of our planet. And scientists have now discovered microscopic evidence of one of the most enduring pollutants – plastic – at the North and South Poles.
Nanoplastics – fragments of plastic smaller than one micrometer – have been found at both poles, and in even higher concentrations in Greenland ice. Our understanding of these tiny plastic particles remains limited, but their presence in such uninhabited and remote places suggests that they could present a bigger problem than previously thought. https://open.spotify.com/embed/episode/04Y7dadcogiivwGPVJWJ6n?utm_source=generator
What is the World Economic Forum doing against plastic pollution?
More than 90% of plastic is never recycled and 8 million tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans every year. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.
The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration of businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful action to address plastic pollution. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH0sInRmd190ZWFtX2hvbGRiYWNrXzExOTI5Ijp7ImJ1Y2tldCI6InByb2R1Y3Rpb24iLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjo4fX0%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1352208328332603393&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.weforum. org%2Fagenda%2F2022%2F01%2Fnanoplastic-north-south-pole%2F&sessionId=89bf48a186cddf9610b65a2e3d4bb657456774a3&theme=light&widgetsVersion=75b3351%3A1642573356397&width=550px
In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with tech giant SAP to create a pool of over 2,000 waste pickers and measure the amounts and types of plastic they collect. This data is then analyzed alongside the prices paid along the value chain by buyers in Ghana and abroad.
It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can rethink the global take-make-throw-away economy as a circular economy in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.
Learn more in our impact story.
We still have a lot to learn
To date, most studies on the effects of plastic pollution have focused on larger fragments – macro and microplastics. Nanoplastics are much harder to detect and have largely escaped notice. But several studies suggest that they are widespread and make up a significant amount of our plastic debris. They have been found in places such as the North Atlantic, isolated lakes in Sweden, Siberia and Russia, and snow in the Austrian Alps, suggesting they are everywhere.
Nanoplastics are formed by the natural erosion of larger plastics, by physical, chemical or biological processes. And because they are so light, scientists who study the distribution of nanoplastics expect them to have spread around the world via air currents. They can also be re-emitted from secondary sources such as urban surfaces and soil, but further studies are needed to fully understand sources, sinks and transport.
The impact of nanoplastics on humans and other organisms
While the research showing that nanoplastics have reached the poles is new, their presence clearly is not. Nanoplastics from sources dating back to the 1960s have been found in ice samples, suggesting organisms have been exposed to their effects for decades.
Polyethylene – typically used for plastic bags and packaging – was the most commonly found type of plastic. PET, or polyethylene terephthalate – the type of plastic used for bottles – has also been regularly discovered. And plastics from dust created by tire wear was another big source.
We are just beginning to learn more about the harm nanoplastics can do to us and other organisms. Humans are exposed to small plastic particles daily, by breathing them in and ingesting them from our food and drink. Microplastics have even been found in the placentas of unborn babies. It is estimated that we ingest tens of thousands to millions of microplastic particles each year. And although they were once thought to be inert, recent studies have suggested that these particles damage our cells.
Nanoplastics have also been shown to have a detrimental effect on marine life, affecting growth, retarding development, as well as causing larval malformations and subcellular changes.
“More research is clearly needed to focus on the measurement of environmental nanoplastics so that the risk of ‘ecological surprise’ can be minimized in a timely manner,” the study authors state.
With nearly 400 million tonnes of plastics produced each year – and growing – the problem of nanoplastics is not going away. More little pieces will be created as all of these plastics break down – and at this time we have no way to dispose of them.