As a penguin researcher working in some of the most remote regions of Antarctica, conservation biologist Alex Borowicz documents colonies on coastlines and islands that have rarely, if ever, been visited by other people. That doesn’t mean they are free from human impact. Walking through a beach teeming with newly hatched chicks on Snow Island, Borowicz spots a white plastic milk jug. Farther along he picks up a tangle of bright green rope, then a faded fishing buoy. “We like to think of Antarctica as a pristine wilderness, but it clearly isn’t,” he says.
Over the course of a six-week expedition aboard a Greenpeace research vessel earlier this year, Borowicz and his fellow scientists collected approximately 3 metric tons of garbage from Antarctic beaches. Marine scientists working on another Greenpeace vessel in the same area detected significant levels of tiny shards of plastic floating in the surrounding waters, most likely shed by larger items breaking down over time. Called microplastics, they are the enduring legacy of humanity’s 60-year love affair with a material that is cheap and ubiquitous, and lasts forever. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic debris end up in the world’s oceans every year. If the current rate continues, scientists estimate that there will be, by weight, more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
According to oceanographers, Antarctica is surrounded by a current that should protect it from any spillover from the Pacific. The fact that plastic debris is still present indicates either gaps in the natural barrier, or that the fishing vessels and cruise ships plying the region are responsible. “It would be difficult for something like this to float down from the Pacific,” says Borowicz from a different beach a few days later, as he examines a yellow boot stamped made in Poland. Antarctica, he says, is nowhere near as bad as some of the beaches he has seen in the Pacific. “But it’s still worth thinking about: here at the end of the world where there are very few people, we still manage to dump a whole lot of trash in the ocean.”
For their part, the penguins seem unperturbed by the junk scattered throughout their nesting grounds. But long term, plastic in the ocean poses a grave environmental threat. As plastics break down, they release chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), that can cause health and development problems for marine life. Plastics also absorb other toxic and carcinogenic pollutants from seawater. When marine animals mistake scraps of plastic for food, they become “a rapid delivery system for poisons into an animal, which can then make its way up the food chain, eventually ending up in the fish that we humans are eating,” says marine scientist Kirsten Thompson of the U.K.’s University of Exeter, who identified the microplastics in the water on the Antarctic expedition. In a worrying sign for Antarctic wildlife, Borowicz has started finding bits of plastic in bird boluses, lumps of undigested food that birds regurgitate as part of the feeding process.
Plastic production is expected to rise. As countries turn away from petroleum products to power their electrical grids, fossil-fuel companies are betting on the plastics industry, which uses natural gas and petroleum as key components. The International Energy Agency predicts that a growth in oil demand related to plastic production will overtake that for road-passenger transport by 2050. Yet less than 14% of plastic worldwide is recycled. The rest ends up in dumps, and, far too often, the ocean.
In the Antarctic, organizations like Greenpeace are trying to trace plastics back to the polluters so they can be held responsible. A similar effort would be all but impossible in the Pacific, but with so few bases and boats in the Antarctic, they have a chance. Most of the items recovered during the expedition, from old fishing nets to a boat fender the size of a minivan, are likely linked to the fishing industry. But the scariest thing, Borowicz says, is the stuff they didn’t find. “We didn’t visit much of Antarctica, yet we managed to find literal metric tons of trash over the past six weeks. There are a lot of other beaches that we haven’t explored. Who knows how much trash is out there?”
This appears in the April 20, 2020 issue of TIME.