Xeros Helps Break the Microplastic Wave in the Antarctic Ocean

Xeros Technology Group joins forces with the British Antarctic Survey - one of the world's leading environmental research centres - to reduce microplastic pollution in the Southern Ocean.

Global estimations suggest around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibers are released into our oceans each year. To help visualise this, think of 50 billion plastic bottles or every person in the world1 throwing at least 6 plastic bottles into the sea every year. This is just from something as ordinary as washing our clothes.

Antarctica is seen as a pristine and untouched wilderness with relatively little pollution. However, a scientific study co-authored by the British Antarctic Survey ['BAS'], did detect a small number of microplastics that have characteristics similar to those commonly produced by clothes washing in waters surrounding Antarctica.

BAS work with many scientists and researchers based in the Antarctic to enable a better understanding of global climate issues and aims to reduce microplastic and microfibre release from washing clothes.

The first step to prevent microfibre waste from entering the sea is to install a commercial XFiltraTM unit at their largest facility in the Antarctic, Rothera research station. The unit will capture over 90% of microfibres from all washing machines at Admirals House, the largest accommodation building, where the overwintering team live during the coldest months of the year.

Xeros spoke with Alexander Coniff, Facilities Engineer at BAS about their ongoing mission to protect our environment and what it's like to live and work in the Antarctic.

Stopping Microfibre Pollution in the Southern Ocean

Alexander explains that BAS is a world-leading centre for polar science that addresses global issues and helps society adapt to a changing world. They are committed to improving the relationship between science and society. Their skilled scientists deliver research that advances our understanding of Earth and our impact on it. 

Alexander said:

In 2020, microplastic fibres were discovered on Everest, demonstrating that even the most remote locations are vulnerable to microplastic pollution.

 

As we modernise Rothera Research Station, we are taking every practicable step to prevent the release of microplastic fibres onto the Antarctic peninsula and into the Southern Ocean.

BAS wanted a filtration device that captures more microfibers than any other device and one that had been independently verified by scientists. They chose the revolutionary commercial XFiltra as it is backed up by research, is self-cleaning and can filter effluent from entire laundry facilities.

The BAS team are currently planning what to do with the microfibres they collect. A microplastics team of engineers, tradesmen, and marine scientists has been formed and they will assess how best to safely dispose of these microfibres. For the immediate future, the plan is to collect and store the microfibres so they can record data trends and publish a report.

Living and Working in the Antarctic

Rothera Research Station is the largest British Antarctic facility and is a centre for biological research and a hub for supporting deep-field and air operations.

Temperatures reach approx. 5°C in the summer and range between –5°C to – 20°C during the winter. Because the station is just south of the Antarctic circle, it is light for 24 hours a day during summer, and for a few weeks in winter the sun never rises above the horizon.

The station’s coastal location makes it a marine biodiversity hotspot and means that staff see a good range of Antarctic birds and mammals. Adélies are the most numerous penguin species around Rothera, with chinstrap and gentoos occasionally present in the summer. Weddell seals, which are present year-round, are the most obvious mammal around the station.

Typically, 20-30 staff are based at the facility during winter and in the summer up to 160 people call the station home.

Many scientists and researchers spend 4-6 months at a time in the Antarctic, but the overwintering team will deploy to Antarctica for over a year.

Alexander paints a picture of what it’s like to live and work at the Rothera Research Station.

The station is undergoing an impressive amount of modernisation, so it is bustling with life as the construction continues. It is very similar to living and working on any professional building site, easy to forget where you are unless you take the time to look around.

Laundry in the Most Remote Continent in the World

With such a community of people living and working at Rothera, there is a fair amount of laundry to do.

The number of people alone does little justice to the amount of laundry required. Each person wears multiple layers and a personal laundry load for a single person can be far greater than someone living in the UK. For example, the engineering team, mechanics and technical service team have full wash loads to do daily.

Individuals are responsible for their own laundry, so there is an obligation for people using the machines to do so respectfully. This includes saving as much water as possible, washing at appropriate times as not to disturb people sleeping in the accommodation and minimal use of detergents. Washing once a week is most common. 

Most people using a washing machine probably don’t ever think about the wastewater that’s generated and where it goes but this is a priority for BAS.

Alexander explains:

At BAS we actually go well above the minimum required standard with an innovative wastewater treatment plant that has a rigorous effluent testing regime developed by me and other members of the estates team.

 

It is important that we demonstrate that BAS operates at the highest of standards and this includes our wastewater treatment. If we can do so in a location as remote as Antarctica there is no excuse for poor standards of effluent release in the UK; a problem recently highlighted in news coverage preceding COP26.

Drying clothes after they’ve been washed is another challenge that BAS is looking to improve in the future. Dryers are energy-intensive and a potential fire hazard if used incorrectly, so developing a drying room that is passively warmed by the building's heating, is an option Alexander and the team are looking into.

Xeros is honoured to have helped BAS find a solution to reducing microfibre pollution. Mark Nichols, CEO Xeros, commented:

Colossal amounts of waste are being dumped in our oceans every day damaging pristine environments and harming wildlife.


A significant amount of this waste comes from the simple act of washing clothes. A washing machine filtration system, like ours, can stop this at source.


We are delighted to be providing a solution to microfibre pollution to an organisation as esteemed as the British Antarctic Survey, in a part of the world where environmental change and biodiversity loss is felt more acutely than anywhere else on the planet.

References

1. Based on a global population of 7.8 billion, November 2021