Microplastics Found Near the Top of Mount Everest

Researchers have found microplastics at 27,690 feet above sea level.

Tents at Everest Base Camp, Everest Region, Nepal
Microplastics may have come from tents, ropes, and high-performance clothing. R.M. Nunes / Getty Images

The daring and adventurous who climb Mount Everest expect to find remarkable views, personal fulfillment, and maybe a sense of peace. What they might not expect are microplastics.

Researchers who analyzed samples from snow and streams found evidence of microplastic pollution on Mount Everest. It makes sense that the highest concentrations were found around Base Camp where hikers spend the most time. But researchers also found microplastics just below the summit — as high as 8,400 meters (27,690 feet) above sea level. The findings were published today in the journal One Earth.

“I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of results, but it really surprised me to find microplastic in every single snow sample,” first author Imogen Napper, a National Geographic Explorer and scientist based at the University of Plymouth in the U.K., tells Treehugger.

“Mount Everest is somewhere I have always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain on Earth is a real eye opener – we need to protect and care for our planet.”

Napper and her team found the highest concentration of microplastics was at Everest Base Camp, with 79 microplastics per liter. This is where people spend a considerable amount of time.

“A large number of trekkers and climbers visit Mount. Everest which increases the potential for the deposition of microplastic, as plastic is the main material used and discarded across the mountain,” Napper says.

But researchers also collected snow from Mount Everest Balcony, a spot at 8,400 meters where climbers can rest. These are the highest microplastics currently ever discovered, Napper says. 

Where the Microplastics Come From

Samples from snow and streams taken at Mount Everest
Snow and stream samples taken on Mount Everest. Imogen Napper

The samples that the scientists collected on the mountain and in the valley below it showed notable amounts of acrylic, nylon, polyester, and polypropylene fibers. These are materials used more and more often to make high-performance clothing often used by climbers, as well as ropes and tents.

The microplastics also may have made their way to the mountain from lower altitude with the help of extreme winds.

“Microplastic contamination has been found from the bottom of the sea to near the top of the world’s highest mountain, according to our new results, highlighting the extent of global plastic pollution across the remote environments,” says Napper.

“In our research, we provide the first documentation of microplastics in snow and stream water on Mt. Everest. This new insight gives a new focus for consideration at a pivotal point in the exploration of remote areas, with lessons to be learned on how we can keep areas pristine with meaningful environmental stewardship.”

Napper says she is often described by her colleagues as a “plastic detective” because she researches how plastic gets into the environment and how to stop it.

“With microplastic ubiquitous within our environment, we now need to focus on robust evidence to inform appropriate environmental solutions,” she says.

“Currently, environmental stewardship is focused on reducing, reusing and recycling larger items of waste. Although these actions are necessary and important, it is evident that solutions need to expand into deeper technological and novel advances with focus on microplastics. For example, as a majority of clothes are made out of plastic, we should focus on designing clothes that shed less.”

View Article Sources
  1. Napper, Imogen. et al "Reaching New Heights In Plastic Pollution—Preliminary Findings Of Microplastics On Mount Everest". One Earth, vol 3, no. 5, 2020, pp. 221-630., doi:10.1016.