Microplastics Are Everywhere, Even the Swiss Alps

The increasing prevalence of tiny plastic particles in remote regions should be a wake-up call for us all.

Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world, a cornucopia of the arts, alpine sports, chocolate, gold, and watches. But like the citizens of every country, the reality of microplastics is affecting the Swiss as well.

​Researchers estimate that 43 trillion tiny plastic particles land in Switzerland every year, from the Alps to the lowlands, many traveling thousands of kilometers through the air before settling there. Photo by Artur Staszewski.

The Federal Office for the Environment estimates that 14,000 tonnes of plastic end up in Swiss soil and water every year, with microplastics — which are created through the breakdown of macroplastics — being one of the largest contributors. A recent study by Swiss, Austrian, and Dutch researchers working in the Alps estimates that 43 trillion tiny plastic particles land in Switzerland every year, from the Alps to the lowlands, many traveling thousands of kilometers through the air before settling there — a number that is sure to rise.

Microplastics reach the highest points in the Alps because of their miniscule weight, which allows them to be pushed upslope by wind into mountain snow. When snow melts at the end of spring, these microplastics begin to flow down winding rivers. They are ingested by fish, lodged in sediment, and eventually end up in lakes across Switzerland, where much of the plastic will remain. This is a major concern for the Swiss, seeing as 20 percent of the country’s tap water comes from lakes that are fed through streams and rivers coming from the Alps. It also poses a threat to fish and other wildlife that live in watersheds.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters in length. They are often created when plastic degrades in the ocean, sun, or wind. Microplastics are also found in many health and beauty products, and shed from synthetic clothing. They are a relatively new phenomena, first detected in the early 1970s. Scientists like Romina Alvarez-Troncoso, who has studied water quality and microplastics for over 20 years, says “Scientists have a have a big responsibility to find out how they have been integrated into our systems.”

While we may not yet know the full extent to which microplastics will affect ecosystems and public health, new research is already showing that microplastics are finding their ways into humans through food, as well as through breathing in the air. Research also shows that microplastics can kill human cells, cause allergic reactions, and negatively affect the gut microbiome, which is essential to digestion. Dr. Alvarez-Troncoso believes that the biggest threat of microplastics is their toxic chemical composition, which could impact soil and lead to devastating affects to the food system.

Indeed, a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Environmental Science has already shown that soil pH and other aspects of soil can be altered by microplastics. Specifically, chemicals in plastics can release toxic chemicals into the soil and increase soil pH, reducing the amount of microbial activity. Microplastics can also act as vectors for disease and can affect soil fauna such as earthworms negatively by getting stuck in the soil and impacting how they make their burrows.

The Swiss government is acting to address the issue of plastic pollution before it spirals further out of control. Inside the country, nearly all plastic is recycled. Switzerland has even made recycling mandatory, issuing fines to those who do not correctly recycle. And as of April of 2022, oxo-degradable plastics — plastic made with additives that break down into microplastics — are be banned in the country entirely.

But Switzerland’s stance on single-use plastic is still worrying, especially because 70 percent of marine litter in the European Union is from single-use plastic. While the EU enacted a ban on certain single-use products in 2021, Switzerland — which is not an EU member — has no plans to ban them. And the presence of microplastics in places as remote as the Alps shows just how far-reaching our plastic pollution problem is.

But there is some hope — some companies are working to tackle the country’s plastics problem themselves. Migros, Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain, stopped selling single-use plastic items in 2020, replacing them with more environmentally friendly materials. Large Swiss retailers also began charging five centimes for plastic shopping bags, resulting in an 84 percent drop in demand at check-out counters between 2016 and 2017. And Swiss students are tackling the issue too — just last summer a team spent three months gathering water samples in the Alps as part of a research project studying just how pervasive microplastics are there.

Finding microplastics in the Alps should be a wakeup call for people, companies, and governments that don’t find microplastics a threat. We now know that microplastics can travel miles above the snowline, and if they can reach the Alps, they can reach anywhere. Which is why Alvarez-Troncoso says that to convince people about the importance of tackling plastic pollution, she would begin by “taking them to a river, taking some samples, and show them how many microplastics can be found in such a small sample of aquatic life.”

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