Micromegas

Mapping Microplastic Pollution in the Arctic

The project in a nutshell

Micromegas*, conducted in partnership with the Oceaneye association, aims to measure the concentrations of plastic pollution in remote regions of the world far from major urban centres but nonetheless affected by this global problem.

During the five years of the expedition, regular sampling of surface water is carried out to assess the content of microplastic particles (between 0.3 and 5 mm in size) and mesoplastic (greater than 5 mm).

Samples are sent for analysis and exploitation to Oceaneye, whose aim is to map plastic pollution in different regions of the world.

*Inspired by Voltaire’s tale the program’s name refers to the idea of “micro-waste” being the bearer of “mega stakes”.

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A pollution still poorly understood

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Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans. This waste breaks down into small particles ranging in size from millimetres to micrometres. These particles, which accumulate in marine ecosystems, have possible adverse consequences on biological life, including human health, through their accumulation in the food chain. Understanding the long-term behaviour of microplastics in the environment and the associated health risks remains a challenge for the global scientific community.

The problem

About 200 million tonnes of plastics are already present in the oceans and an estimated 10 million tonnes of additional plastic are dumped into the oceans every year.

Pollution of surface waters by microplastics is only one aspect of a much larger phenomenon – plastic in the oceans – affecting all world’s seas. The scientific community is only just beginning to understand the extent of the problem and the associated challenges for maintaining healthy marine ecosystems.

To consider solving this multifaceted ecological emergency, reliable, quantitative and qualitative data are crucially needed in the first place.

Acting at the source? Yes, but which source? Limiting losses along rivers and in cities? Changing our mentalities and consumption habits?

One thing is certain: global plastics production is showing no signs of slowing down. To date, humans have generated more than 8 billion tonnes of plastics.

Rationale

The most visible plastic pollution, macro-waste, mainly affects the coasts. Micro-waste pollution of surface waters is now the subject of numerous field study campaigns like those conducted jointly by the Fondation Pacifique and Oceaneye from 2015 to 2019, as part of The Ocean Mapping Expedition.

Field data remain sparse from one ocean to the other, and almost non-existent in the Arctic. Little is known about the pollution of the ocean floor, where a large part of the ocean plastic is believed to end up. Most is found in the form of micro-particles resulting from the progressive fragmentation of macro-waste or originally produced in this form, such as plastic micro-balls used in the cosmetics industry.

Similarly, little is known about the tendency of plastic to aggregate chemical elements present in the oceans. With what consequences for the food chain?

What are microplastics?

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Microplastics are all types of plastic fragments measuring less than 5mm. These particles may be the result of natural degradation processes of larger plastic debris (such as drinking bottles), or those produced intentionally in this form. This is the case of microfibres found in modern clothing or microbeads widely used in the cosmetics and hygiene industry.

Scientific objectives

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Under a strict protocol, Mauritius’s crew uses a custom fabricated net whose cod-end consists of a removable mesh pocket. Samples obtained are preserved with 50% or coarse salt and sent back to Switzerland for analysis.

Oceaneye’s experts separate organic elements from plastic particles, sort the latter according to their size and type: fragments, thin films, threads, foams and pellets, and evaluate the concentrations of microplastics by region.

Then, using spectrometry, experts can determine the chemical composition of each element, an important clue to establish the origin of the plastic.

Hundreds of samples of surface water will be collected during the Arctic Ocean Expedition. They will provide a unique record as they deliver their results.

What is the impact on our health?

Fragmented plastic, chemically very stable, could potentially reach both human organs and cell membranes and pass through the blood-brain barrier and placenta. Although the consequences of this pollution on human health are still unknown, exposure to plastic pollution and its accumulation could produce long-term harmful effects.

Beneficiaries

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Micromegas is intended to provide data to the scientific community investigating microplastic transport in the marine environment.

The results of this new campaign in the Arctic region will be shared with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in particular through the GRID-Geneva to be freely accessible by the scientific community.

Oceaneye’s research partners have already benefited from the data produced during the former expedition of the Fondation Pacifique around the world between 2015 and 2019.

Project leader

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Pascal Hagmann,
Oceaneye Director
www.oceaneye.ch

Oceaneye has been a partner of the Fondation’s expeditions since 2015. It has developed a plastic pollution mapping programme on board the Fleur de Passion along the four-year around-the-world voyage in the wake of Magellan, and extended the program aboard the Mauritius from 2016.

Oceaneye’s mission is to raise awareness about the issue of marine debris by generating reliable information and data to share with the scientific community, journalists and press, the general public and the industry. Its action at sea focuses mainly on surface plastic pollution. Oceaneye collaborates with a network of volunteer sailboats to gather samples from various regions of the world.