A lot of folks think it’s pretty crappy Longyearbyen doesn’t treat its wastewater before discharging it into the supposedly pristine waters at its edge, but it turns out locals doing a different type of water cleansing are contributing to the problem in the form of microfibers coming loose from clothes they wash.
Because the water containing those fibers is untreated, the amount generated by Longyearbyen’s 2,400 residents is the same as the 1.3 million residents who live in Vancouver, Canada, according to a new study.
“We hope this study can help increase focus on the need for better infrastructure in small communities and vulnerable areas,” said Claudia Halsband, one of three co-authors of the study based on wastewater samples taken in Adventfjorden during two one-week periods in June and September 2017 , in a prepared statement. “The potential for damage to the Arctic environment is high.”
A single pair of jeans releases about 56,000 microfibers per wash, the study notes. Based on the samples collected, about 18 billion microfibers between 0.05 and five millimeters long are released into Adventfjorden annually.
The type of clothing commonly worn in Longyearbyen, including more heavy-duty fleece and wool garments than a city at Canada’s southwest edge, also makes a difference in how the microfibers disperse.
“Not unexpectedly, the lightest microfibers, which are mostly made of polyester, floated longer than the heavy wool fibers,” said Dorte Herzke, a Norwegian Institute for Air Research employee who also co-authored the study. “We could also see that most of the fibers move up along the northern shoreline (west side) of the fjord. Light microfibers are carried out of Adventfjord fairly quickly, within hours or days, while heavier fibers remain in the fjord and accumulate near the seabed.”
Awareness of the issue is not new in Longyearbyen. Among other efforts, Herzke and Jan Sundet from the Institute of Marine Research (the current study’s third co-author) widely distributed “Cora Balls” to residents for use in washing machines, hoping it would show a reduction in microfiber discharges. Discussions about a water treatment plan have also occurred among governing bodies with oversight of Longyearbyen, although no project is even at the proposal stage.
Technology that can remove large proportions of microfibers and microplastics already exists, and is used in water treatment plants in Vancouver and the major cities in Norway, according to the study. However, in Longyearbyen and many other small towns such treatment technology is far away.
“As a private person, there is unfortunately little you can do,” Herzke said. “It obviously helps to air wool clothes instead of washing them, and wear a pair of trousers a day or two extra before it goes in the washing machine, but all in all this is about infrastructure.”