The man in the bright blue overall has dropped his large backpack at the side of the Dranse de Ferret, a tumultuous mountain torrent close to La Fouly, in canton Valais, Switzerland. Frédéric Gillet has unlaced his hiking boots, taken off his thick woolen socks, and is stepping in the freezing waters, fighting the strong current. Holding a kind of long hoop net, he is keeping it in the water - and himself mainly out of it, at least that’s the plan!
It’s the beginning of June, the sun is out but the air still crisp, and we are at the foot of the Mont-Blanc massif. It stands for pure eternal snow, a pristine environment, and is proud as the highest alpine terrain in continental Europe. A beloved playground to mountaineers, climbers, skiers and hikers of all kinds.
Yet today, Frédéric is not here for the outdoor fun. He’s part of a scientific team from the Université Savoie Mont Blanc in Chambéry, France, and their goal is to measure just how much microplastics are present in the meltwater of glacier ice and snow, in an environment that is mainly free of direct plastic pollution sources. They have collected samples on 18 of the massif’s glaciers, and results should be available towards the end of 2021.
What we know already now, however, is that microplastics are everywhere. In the air we breathe, in the arctic ice and the remotest parts of the deep sea. It’s proven to be in our foods and is located in our bodies. Tiny toxic plastic particles that continuously break into smaller pieces and can eventually pass cell membranes and work their way up the food chain, and unto our plates. It’s probably one of the biggest environmental problems of our time.
Synthetic textiles are one of the main sources of microplastic pollution and account for 35% of all microplastics. With each wash, countless plastic fibers are making their way from washing machines into rivers and oceans. According to a study by the University of California at Santa Barbara, a city the size of Berlin releases a wash-related volume of microfibers equivalent to approx. 500,000 plastic bags - every single day.
Frédéric’s numb feet are a bright red when he pulls over his net to the torrent’s bank, but he managed to keep his balance and otherwise stay dry. The dark compressed mud in the sock at the end of his net is composed of mineral, organic, and plastic accretions. Back in the lab, a strong oxidation will dissolve the organic elements, and the microplastics will be isolated with a special solution working on the sediment’s density.
By determining those microplastics’ exact composition and possibly their origin, this study may be able to start finding answers to this problematical question: how did those particles find their way to the snow and ice of the Mont-Blanc glaciers?
Frédéric will be back with his team on the mountain in 2022 for another study. They will be able to compare the results, and hopefully propose some solutions. And above all: raise awareness amongst the local population, and beyond.
It would be nice to know the ice cubes in the drink we are sipping on a hot summer afternoon are made of pure solid frozen water only.