Impact of Plastic in the Polar Regions

Impact of Plastic in the Polar Regions

Start date
1 October, 2017
End date
1 October, 2020

An estimated 75% of all the litter in our oceans is plastic, and around 5 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the ocean annually. Scientific observations of a significant concentration of plastics debris in both polar oceans indicate that plastic pollution is a global problem.  The impacts of this debris on the sensitive polar ecosystem could be profound and BAS plays a key role in turning this science into policy.

Plastic debris found on a beach in Greenland

The Southern Ocean has the lowest densities of large plastic litter in the world. For the last three decades, the British Antarctic Survey has been regularly monitoring large plastic debris washed up on beaches near its research stations and recording incidences of ingestion and entanglements of birds and mammals. Many of these animals travel huge distances to find food and can bring plastics and other marine debris to the Antarctic from more polluted areas of the world.

A seal entangled in plastic netting on Bird Island

More recently we have also turned our attentions to the emerging and worrying issue of microplastics, smaller pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in size. Microplastics can come from a range of sources: personal care products (such as toothpastes, shampoos and shower gels); synthetic fibres from laundry; and from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic debris. Microplastics have been found in the seas of the Arctic and Antarctic, including surface waters and deep-sea and shallow sediments. These tiny particles and plastic fibres have been shown to negatively impact a variety of marine species. BAS scientists collect water, ice and sediment samples from the Arctic and Antarctic in order to understand how widespread these small pieces of plastic are.

Microplastic fibres and particles found in the Southern Ocean

Our scientists are working with our collaborators to quantify how much plastic pollution there is in the polar regions, where it comes from and what effects it is having on polar ecosystems.

Deploying a microplastic net in the Canadian Arctic
Sarah Reed collecting samples for microplastics near Rothera Research Station

Read the report from the BAS-CCI workshop ‘Plastics in the Ocean: Challenges and Solutions’ here

For more information about how the international community is dealing with plastics at the poles there will be a meeting at .

Records of macro- and microplastics found so far in the Southern Ocean
  • To quantify plastic pollution in the polar regions
  • To identify the sources of this plastic
  • To understand what effects it is having on polar ecosystems
  • To provide information and advice to government and international policy makers
A man wearing a hat and glasses

Kevin Hughes

Environ. Research and Monitoring

Environment Office team

Avatar photo

Cecilia Liszka

Marine Ecologist

Ecosystems team

Avatar photo

Richard Phillips

Seabird Ecologist, Deputy Science Leader, IMP 3

Ecosystems team

Avatar photo

Sally Thorpe

Ecological Modeller

Ecosystems team

Avatar photo

Claire Waluda

Data Analysis CCAMLR

Ecosystems team

A man wearing a hat and sunglasses posing for the camera.

Pete Bucktrout

Senior Creative Services Manager

Innovation team, Communications team

A man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera.

Henry Burgess

Head of Arctic Office

BAS-Arctic Working Group

A person on top of a snow covered hill.

Victoria Fowler

PDRA Characterising Pelagic Biodiver S Georgia

Kirstie Jones-Williams – PhD Student

External Collaborators

Cath Waller – University of Hull, UK

Iván Loaiza – Científica del Sur University, Peru

Bernabé Moreno – Científica del Sur University, Peru

Cesar O. Pacherres – Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany

Richard Thompson – Plymouth University

Tamara Galloway – University of Exeter

Steve Fletcher – UNEP-WCMC

Ilaria Corsi – Università di Siena

Elisa Bergami – Università di Siena

Matthew Cole – Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Bhavani Narayanaswamy – The Scottish Association for Marine Science

Philip Anderson – The Scottish Association for Marine Science


Plastic Pollution reaching Antarctica

28 April, 2020

Food wrapping, fishing gear and plastic waste continue to reach the Antarctic. Two new studies into how plastic debris is reaching sub-Antarctic islands are published in the journal Environment International. …

BBC Blockbuster Blue Planet II returns

23 October, 2017

Blue Planet II – the nature documentary that explores the deepest and darkest realms of the world’s oceans – is back on the BBC some 16 years after it was …

Human waste threatens global biodiversity

22 April, 2002

22 April 2002 PR Number 6/2002 Discarded human debris is encouraging colonization of exotic marine animals in the world’s oceans and threatening global biodiversity, particularly in the Southern Ocean. The …

King Edward Point Research Station

King Edward Point is primarily a marine and  fisheries research station.   Owned by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) and operated by British Antarctic Survey …

Bird Island Research Station

Bird Island Research Station is an important centre for research into bird and seal biology. Lying off the north-west tip of South Georgia, Bird Island is one of the richest …

Signy Research Station

Signy Research Station is one of Britain’s smallest stations, and is only occupied in summer. The island’s abundant wildlife and greenery make it an ideal outdoor laboratory. Research at Signy …

Rothera Research Station

The largest British Antarctic facility is a centre for biological research and a hub for supporting deep-field science.