Is nowhere exempt from the scourge of plastic waste? Words :: Nikkey Dawn.
Peering into the microscope, Dr. Imogen Napper knew what she didn’t want to find. Under her lens lay a snow sample from The Balcony on Mount Everest, 8,440 metres above sea level, and just shy of the famed summit. It’s the highest sample ever collected for microplastic study. Bringing the microscope into focus, Napper finds thin synthetic fibres—polyester, acrylic, nylon, and polypropylene—likely shed directly from climbers’ clothing, ropes and camping gear or blown in from other sites on the mountain, where synthetic prayer flags are strung and often abandoned.
A few months earlier, Napper received the call from her supervisor: some colleagues were going to sample on Everest for PFAs (Per- and polyfluoroalkyls aka “forever chemicals” often used on outerwear for wicking). Did she want samples too? “Lo and behold, suddenly I was writing up a methodology and getting the canisters ready,” Napper says, adding that her expectations remained low. “At that elevation, it’s survival—they’re not thinking about what canisters they’re taking for sampling.”
But the samples soon showed up at Napper’s lab at the University of Plymouth. In total, six snow and six stream sites were sampled—all of which contained microplastics—with the largest concentration found at Everest Base Camp, which Napper had expected. Base Camp can look like a music festival grounds on Monday morning, littered with abandoned gear and belongings.
But what did surprise Napper was the density of microplastic at the lesser-visited areas, sites where people are spending less time, like The Balcony. “Those fibres were quite freshly laid… so you wonder how much is buried in the snow. Attempting to get these tiny fibres out of snow, or even the ocean… how? You’ve got microbes and tiny bugs everywhere, what kind of damage are you going to do?” If this is the state of one of the most challenging mountains in the world, what do our ski resorts look like?
Stephanie Karba, environmental researcher at Patagonia, has been elbow-deep in testing their products’ shed rates. When asked if they’ve been able to isolate certain materials for high shed count Karba says, “I wish we could pinpoint and say ‘wool is this, cotton is this and polyester is this’, but the complexity of how yarn is spun, whether something is knit or woven, how it is dyed, how it’s finished… all of those variables that go into making a fabric are going to affect the amount (of microfibres) released.”
Patagonia looks at multiple “buckets” of environmental impacts like microfibre pollution, carbon emission, water usage and toxicity. With every potential solution for one bucket, they have to consider the implications to the others. It’s complex work, but Karba is excited and hopeful about industry innovation and collaboration. While talking about the Everest results, Karba mentions, “It occurred to me that Edmund Hillary climbed it in 1953, less than 70 years ago, and even he was wearing nylon ripstop… the first climbers of Everest were already in the synthetic, high-performance textile world.”
Karba says this illustrates that synthetics are often necessary for our safety and survival in extreme environments, but on a sunny stroll through the woods? Not really. Millions of dollars have been spent on ensuring synthetic activewear’s comfortability and marketability, so it’s now commonplace for us to overdress—performance-wise—for the outdoors.
So, while the industry works out their solutions, maybe it’s our job to dress down and minimize our environmental impact. Summer sunscreen-only hiking club, anyone?