Scientists make disheartening find of microplastics near top of Mount Everest

The National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition collected microplastics from an area of Mount Everest known as “the Balcony.” Climbers often leave waste behind along the route to the top.

Baker Perry/National Geographic

Humanity’s obsession with plastic products has left a trail of junk stretching from the deepest ocean trench to the highest mountains. 

A research team from the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition has discovered microplastics near the top of the legendary Mount Everest. A study published in the Cell Press journal One Earth on Friday describes the disheartening findings.

Everest has been a popular, though sometimes deadly, destination for climbers looking to summit one of the tallest peaks in the world. These visitors often discard large waste items like oxygen tanks along the way. 

These microplastic fibers were found in snow samples collected by the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition.

Imogen Napper/National Geographic

“Microplastics haven’t been studied on the mountain before, but they’re generally just as persistent and typically more difficult to remove than larger items of debris,” lead author Imogen Napper, a National Geographic Explorer and marine scientist at the University of Plymouth, said in a statement on Friday.

The research team collected and analyzed snow and stream water samples from Everest in 2019. Napper said she was surprised to find the tiny plastic fragments — including polyester, acrylic, nylon and polypropylene — in an area she’d considered remote and pristine. The fibers likely came from clothing and climbing ropes. 

Napper described the finds as “the highest microplastics discovered so far.” Some of them came from a height of 27,700 feet (8,440 meters) above sea level. Napper didn’t climb the mountain herself, but contributed with her lab work. “To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener,” she said.

The paper says increased tourism on Everest will likely cause a rise in microplastics on the mountain. The researchers suggest investigating natural fibers as alternatives to synthetic clothing and gear. “However, replacing synthetic textiles with natural counterparts could be more expensive and the impact of non-synthetic microfibers accumulating in the environment is currently unclear,” the study said.

Plastics are widespread across the globe, from packaging to water bottles to food take-out containers, but efforts are underway to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics. Massive challenges remain when it comes to recycling, rethinking product packaging and changing usage habits. Here’s more on the problem and what people can do about it.

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