Plastics in Antarctica? What we know

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, continue to be one of the most remote places on the planet. However, as a consequence of human growth, these places are also increasingly subject to the pressures of anthropogenic activities.

In this context, numerous studies have documented plastic pollution in the recent decades, to better understand the scale of this problem.

The most common thinking in society, when talking about plastic, is as large objects such as bottles, bags, among others, yet, the problem of plastics is more serious due to its fragmentation, which ends up producing thousands of small pieces, many almost or even invisible to the naked eye. There are different categories, but these can be from nano-plastics (< 1 nanometre) or macro-plastics (> 10 millimetres).

This study thus reveals an overview of the current state of plastics in Antarctica, the possible sources, impacts and measures that are being taken. Nano-plastics usually are originated in commercial products and their consequent fragmentation, in pharmaceutical activity, detergents, cosmetics, etc. Although remote, a considerable part of the occurrence in Antarctica is brought by oceanic and atmospheric currents, which end up aggregating marine “garbage” more strongly in some regions than others. Currently, the Antarctic Peninsula region, in the Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean, is the most affected region in Antarctica, and the one that suffers the most human pressure. In addition to the origins mentioned above, fishing and tourism are also a major source of plastic pollution in the Southern Ocean.

In addition to their presence, in the oceans, ice shelves, continents and Antarctic islands, the ingestion of plastics has already across the different species have also been documented, from birds (i.e.: albatrosses, penguins), fish (i.e.: icefish, cod from Patagonia), benthos (sea urchin), etc.

Figure 1 – Distribution of the various areas and species where the presence and ingestion of plastics in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have already been documented.

Among the impacts, plastic can serve as a carrier of bacteria and pathogens, which do not normally occur in Antarctica, and thus have serious consequences for the local fauna and flora. Ingestion by different species can also bring health risks to the animals themselves since many of these plastics have toxic chemicals in their composition. On the other hand, the ingestion of large pieces, such as ropes, fishing nets, lines, has already caused the death of countless individuals, or strangulation situations that cause serious wounds and inflammation.

Currently, with the recognition of this problem, many of the most active players in this region have been creating conditions and measures aimed at reducing the introduction of plastic in this crucial area of planet Earth. As an example, the Scientific Committee on Antarctica Research (SCAR) created in 2018 a working group exclusively dedicated to understanding and evaluating the different sources, distribution and occurrence of plastic. The Antarctic Treaty itself is also integrating this new challenge, and its Annex IV already mentions the total ban on any plastic disposal in Antarctic waters. In turn, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has imposed the reduction of various plastic objects to the minimum possible in fishing activities. Finally, tourism has increasingly carried out educational activities in this area, cleaning coastal areas, and supporting research and conservation in this regard.

Ahead, there is still the challenge of understanding as best as possible the real effects that plastic will have in this region, and how we can effectively mitigate it. However, stakeholders, from governments, companies, tourism, science, are moving in the direction to fight this problem together.


Source: Caruso, G., Bergami, E., Singh, N., & Corsi, I. (2022). Plastic occurrence, sources, and impacts in Antarctic environment and biota. Water Biology and Security, 100034.

Authors: Diana Rodrigues and José Abreu


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