Plastic waste in Antarctica reveals the scale of international pollution

A manta trawl is used to collect water samples in Neko Harbour Antarctica

Frida Bengtsson, of Greenpeace's Protect the Antarctic campaign, told Reuters: "We may think of the Antarctic as a remote and pristine wilderness. but from pollution and climate change to industrial krill fishing, humanity's footprint is clear".

A further seven out of nine samples taken by Greenpeace were found to have detectable concentrations of persistent chemicals known as PFAs or PFCs, which may have come from the atmosphere.

"In Aotearoa, we have a special affinity to our frigid blue backyard of the Antarctic oceans".

Greenpeace is calling on the New Zealand Government to launch a plastic pollution strategy that starts with a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags, but that includes other avoidable plastics like straws and coffee stirrers, and ensures better collection methods with a container deposit scheme for drink bottles.

This would follow similar commitments made by several worldwide countries in the the last few weeks that have launched new legislation or draft laws in tackling single-use plastic pollution, including the UK, EU, Taiwan and India.

A decision on the sanctuary proposal, which is being put forward by the European Union and supported by environmental campaign groups around the world, will be taken at the forthcoming meeting of the Antarctic Ocean Commission in Tasmania in October.

But the ubiquity of plastic contamination-from tap water to the world's deepest point in the ocean to Antarctica-is alarming.

"Given the urgency and scale of the problem, there's an opportunity for New Zealand to become a world leader for our oceans". When Greenpeace set sail to the Antarctic earlier this year, we were going to look for the incredible wildlife - tottering penguins, majestic whales, soaring seabirds - that call the Antarctic Ocean home.

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"The reality of how bad our plastic pollution problem has become is both painful and shocking".

Analysis now shows that microplastics and chemicals were present, respectively, in the water and snow samples that we took in the Antarctic during our recent expedition.

Some of the pollution was immediately visible: our crew saw waste from the fishing industry floating in the waters, such as buoys, nets and tarpaulins drifting in between icebergs.

Our snow sampling and water trawling were an important part of the science work that Greenpeace carried out during our three month expedition in the Antarctic.

Microplastics come from two main sources: plastic pellets (the pea-sized raw material used in the production of most plastics) and microbeads (tiny capsules found in synthetic cosmetic and cleaning products such as body scrubs, toothpaste and washing powders).

Apart from visiting explorers like Shackleton and Scott and a handful of research scientists collecting valuable data, Antarctica has managed to avoid a great deal of human activity faced by the rest of the world.

Ms Bengtsson suggested creating a huge Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary to protect marine life and preserve it for the future.

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