Microplastics in Antarctic penguins, the silent garbage

The presence of materials made of plastics is part of our daily life. We can hardly look anywhere without finding an object made of these materials.

Plastics define a wide range of compounds (eg, polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene). Most are manufactured from hydrocarbons that meet three fundamental characteristics: high resistance and durability, low cost and versatility.

Nobody doubts the usefulness of these materials and nor the facilitation that it has meant in different areas of our lives, from medicine, transportation or the conservation of materials to the development of almost any technological device.

This importance is evident in the data that shows the magnitude of the significance of plastics in the world economy: in 2018 the plastic trade in any of its forms it was a trillion dollars, which is equivalent to 5% of merchandise trade.

Excessive use of plastic

However, plastic, or more precisely plastic waste, today constitutes one of the first environmental problems that we face. The use of plastic materials has spread to unsuspected levels. Its main use is that of packaging and we have come to use them to wrap a single piece of fruit.

On the other hand, mass consumption makes its presence reach really exorbitant levels. In 2019 the production of plastics reached the figure of 368 million tons. In addition, the sum of production throughout history since its appearance around 1930 is estimated at 8,300 million tons.

A large part of that plastic garbage, approximately 80%, accumulates in nature. It is the so-called “garbage” and ends up reaching the marine environment. In fact, it is estimated that between 4 and 12 million tons of plastic entered the sea in 2010 of which 80% came from land.

An immortal material

One of the great problems of plastic is precisely one of its characteristics, its high resistance. Virtually no type of plastic is biodegradable and the only way to destroy it is through incineration. Therefore, its permanence in the medium is very high: a bottle could take more than 400 years to disappear.

Meanwhile, the degradation of plastic materials is generating smaller and smaller pieces until reaching the so-called microplastics that are less than 5 mm in length.

The effects of the permanence of plastic waste in the sea are very evident in seabirds. These can seriously injure and kill them by ingesting the larger pieces of plastic.

The danger of the arrival of microplastics to the sea

Microplastics are ingested by seabirds to a greater extent than other larger plastic debris, as they can be inadvertently ingested through the prey on which they feed.

This makes them very susceptible to being present in a greater number of species and reaching more remote places. One of these places is Antarctica and the ocean that surrounds the continent.

At present, there are still no good estimates of the presence of microplastics in the southern ocean. However, concentrations of up to 99,000 particles per square kilometer. Most of them have as origin plastic garbage, fibers from clothing and remains of personal care products such as creams.

Gentoo penguins.
Shutterstock / Alexey Seafarer

Microplastics have reached the penguins of Antarctica

One of the most representative groups of species in Antarctica are penguins. They constitute 80% of the vertebrate biomass in the southern ocean and are defined as authentic sentinels of the health of the Antarctic ecosystem.

Recently, research groups from the National Museum of Natural Sciences, the University of Coimbra and the British Antarctic Survey have carried out a study to determine the presence of these microplastics in the three species of Antarctic penguins: chinstrap penguin, gentoo penguin and penguin of Adelia.

All are distributed in the Antarctic Peninsula and from them have been obtained data of 10 populations between 2006 and 2016 through stool sampling.

The results showed a presence of microplastics in up to 29% of the samples, which were identified as polyethylene in 80% of the cases and polyester in 10%. Other fibers identified belonged to cellulose debris.

At the moment, the direct effects of these residues on the biology of the penguins are unknown. But quite possibly contribute to pollutant levels organics detected in these birds and that can have physiological consequences as endocrine disruptors.

In short, these results have shown a wide presence of microplastics in a very wide geographical area and for at least 15 years in the most conspicuous birds of Antarctica, such as penguins. Everything points to the serious problem of plastic pollution at a global level that reaches the most remote areas of the planet.

Joana Fragão, Filipa Bessa and Jose C. Xavier, researchers from the University of Coimbra, Marine and Environmental Sciences Center, have collaborated in the preparation of this article

Andres Barbosa, Scientific Researcher, ecology, evolution and conservation, National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN-CSIC)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. read the original.


Leave a Comment