You and I May Never Summit Everest But Microplastics Already Have

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Regular readers no doubt have heard about the problems we have been having at Naked Capitalism this week. Mine have been particularly severe, though I understand some of the weirder ones have now migrated to Lambert as well.

So I have been slowed in my production of original posts, including one on the First Amendment that mentions the less than full-throated defence by the spineless man who later became our president. But I have not had stable enough access to finish that post to my satisfaction so I’m substituting this more whimsical one instead. Rest assured, you’ll get that First Amendment post soon. The issue isn’t going anywhere and will still be around after our problems at Naked Capitalism have gone away.


The Guardian ran an article today about another extreme natural environment invaded by the scourge of microplastics. Microplastic pollution found near summit of Mount Everest:

Microplastic pollution has been discovered in snow close to the peak of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. With plastic debris revealed in 2018 at the deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench, it is now clear that humanity’s litter has polluted the entire planet.

The tiny plastic fibres were found within a few hundred metres of the top of the 8,850-metre mountain, at a spot known as the balcony. Microplastics were found in all the snow samples collected from 11 locations on Everest, ranging from 5,300 metres to 8,440 metres high.

The highest concentrations of microplastics were found around Base Camp, where climbers and trekkers spend the most time. The fibres were most likely to have come from the clothing, tents and ropes used by mountaineers, the scientists said. Other recent discoveries of microplastic pollution in remote parts of the Swiss Alps and French Pyrenees indicate the particles can also be carried by the wind from further afield.

Everest has long captured our imagination, whatever the period, and the mountaineer, whether it be Mallory or Hillary or others. That’s not to mention the wonderful literature it has inspired, including Wade Davis’s Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, , about how close George Mallory came to conquering the summit, dying in the attempt; and Jon Krakauer’s harrowing Into Thin Air, about how summiting was translated from something only elite mountaineers could hope to attain to how it was available to rich socialites with sufficient bucks at their disposal

Let anyone inspired by these heroic tales deny it’s past time to develop some solution to the plastics calamity. From the Guardian:

Reducing, reusing and recycling larger items of plastic waste is important, Napper said, as they can be broken down into microplastics when discarded into the environment. But many microplastics are shed from clothing made from synthetic fabrics, and she said a focus on better fabrics was needed, as well as using natural fibres such as cotton when possible.

Millions of tonnes of plastic are lost into the environment every year. It can contain toxic additives and carry harmful microbes and is known to injure wildlife that mistake it for food.

People also consume microplastics via food and water, and breathe them in, although the health impact is not yet known.

There have been longstanding concerns about litter on Everest, which was climbed by at least 880 people in 2019. But the new study is the first to assess microplastic pollution, which is less than 5mm in size and therefore too small to be picked up.

The study, published in the journal One Earth, analysed samples collected by a National Geographic expedition in 2019. The scientists found an average of 30 microplastic particles per litre of water in the snow samples and 119 particles per litre in the most contaminated sample. They also assessed stream water samples from eight locations, but only three had microplastics, perhaps as the streams were able to wash away contamination.

In her previous work, Napper has found that each cycle of a washing machine can release 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres, and that plastic bags that claim to be biodegradable were still intact after three years in the natural environment.

I have never hiked on the mountain, but have seen it close to from a chartered aircraft, and once circumnavigated some of the world’s largest peaks by a jeep and foot journey around the Singlalia Trek. If anyplace on earth could avoid microplastics contamination, one would imagine this would be it. Alas, it is so sad that it too has not escaped.

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  1. Wukchumni

    The idea that Mt Everest is a weird trash dump (don’t forget all those bodies along the way to the top) is really a turn off for me, as my beloved Sierra backcountry here is nothing like that whatsoever as the ethos of taking out everything you brought in is quite strong. I’d guess in 5,000 miles of walking in Sequoia-Kings Canyon NP i’ve picked up enough trash in total to fill one backpack worth if that.

    Maybe if they priced wilderness permits something similar to what it costs to climb Everest @ $60k, versus $15 here, we’d get idiots that would spoil everything, but I don’t see that happening, nor will anybody carry your gear for you (unless you’re on a pack trip) as is the custom with almost all ascending to the top of the world.

    1. hickory nut

      The article doesn’t make it sound to me like a trash dump where people mindlessly toss their trash. it sounds like the author is describing the sort of pollution that comes from the normal wear and tear of common gear like clothes and tents, which simply shed pollution through normal use and washing. I imagine the Sierra backcountry suffers similarly. I’m not aware of anyplace safe, since microplastics fall in the rain.

  2. John Zelnicker

    I think my biggest worry about these microscopic and smaller plastic particles is what they are doing to our bodies. The human body can absorb and process all kinds of pollution in small amounts, but as these plastics have become so pervasive and don’t break down easily, they are going to accumulate in our tissues to the point where our bodies can’t keep up with processing and eliminating them. What will be the effect of this growing accumulation? Obviously, we don’t know and that’s what concerns me.

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