The infrastructure of cities and communities in the Arctic is often not comparable to that in temperate and industrialized regions. While roads, energy, schools and basic health care are usually available, wastewater treatment facilities are lacking almost everywhere, with as yet unquantified and poorly studied consequences for the Arctic marine environment. In Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen’s main town, wastewater is also discharged untreated into the fjord. In a case study, a Norwegian research team has now determined the amount of microfibers discharged, and investigated their distribution in the fjord and possible effects on marine life.
Longyearbyen is located in western Spitsbergen on the Adventfjord, a side fjord of the Isfjord, and is the largest town on the Svalbard archipelago with about 2,400 inhabitants. Once founded as a mining town, today mainly scientists, students, tourism entrepreneurs and their employees live here. The infrastructure is modern and offers residents and visitors variety with restaurants, pubs, hotels, stores, a cinema and a swimming pool. Despite the exceptionally diverse structural features of Longyearbyen for Arctic conditions, a sewage treatment system is not in place. Thus, not only all organic wastewater from households and businesses, including detergent and cleaning agent residues, ends up in the Adventfjord, but also microfibers that are released from clothing during washing. Due to the climatic conditions, the proportion of insulating performance clothing, often made of synthetic materials, is correspondingly high, and in the Arctic location the emission of microfibers is therefore particularly high.
The research team took several samples of the wastewater directly at the Longyearbyen pumping station and determined an annual input of about 18 billion microfibers with a size between 50 micrometers and 5 millimeters. This is roughly the same amount that Vancouver, Canada, with a population of 1.3 million, releases into the environment each year after treating wastewater in a two-stage treatment system.
Just washing a pair of jeans, usually made of cotton, can release 56,000 fibers. A wash load of six kilograms of synthetic acrylic clothing can release 700,000 fibers. No wastewater treatment plant has yet been able to completely filter out the microfibers of polyester, polyamide, polyacrylic, and others. However, there are systems capable of retaining about 99 per cent of the fibres, such as the one in Vancouver.
“We hope this study can help increase focus on the need for better infrastructure in small communities and vulnerable areas. The potential for damage to the Arctic environment is high.”Claudia Halsband, marine ecologist at the Norwegian company Akvaplan-niva and co-author of the study
In addition, the scientists simulated the distribution of the fibers in the fjord starting from the pumping station, distinguishing the different microfiber materials according to their density (and buoyancy in the water) into light, neutral, heavy and very heavy. The modeling showed that the light (polypropylene) and neutral fibers remain on the surface and are carried out of the fjord with the current relatively quickly – within hours or days. The heavy (polyamide) and very heavy fibers (wool), on the other hand, essentially sank to the sea floor and remained in the fjord.
For copepods, larvae of mussels, snails and barnacles and other plankton organisms, as well as for benthic animals such as mussels or bristle worms and their predators, the high microfibre concentrations could have negative effects, although much research is still needed.
There is awareness of this environmental problem in Longyearbyen and the authorities are also discussing solutions. However, there are no concrete plans for wastewater treatment. According to the study, about one million households across Norway are not connected to a wastewater treatment system, and the authors estimate that the country emits three trillion – 3,000,000,000,000 – microfibers into the environment each year. Another study estimates that the global amount of microfiber in the top meter of the oceans ranges from 90,000 to 380,000 tons.
The authors call for appropriate systems to be installed there in view of the many small and larger settlements in the Arctic, most of which do not have wastewater treatment facilities. The technology is available and, if implemented, could prevent most microfiber emissions, protecting marine life and, not least, the people who rely on the oceans as a source of food.
Individual solutions that can be easily implemented in households already exist, for example in the form of laundry bags that retain fibres in the washing machine.
Julia Hager, PolarJournal
Link to the study: Herzke, D., Ghaffari, P., Sendet, J.H., Aas Tranang, C., Halsband, C. Microplastic Fiber Emissions From Wastewater Effluents: Abundance, Transport Behavior and Exposure Risk for Biota in an Arctic Fjord. Front. Environ. Sci., 07 June 2021. https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2021.662168
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