/ 16 February 2024

New ‘microplastic’ flag for Antarctica

Antartica's redesigned flag aims to focus attention on the microplastic crisis affecting the remote, pristine region

In 1996, when British designer Graham Bartram crafted the flag for Antarctica, as it is recognised today, it featured an emblematic white silhouette over a blue field.

His flag was specifically designed to symbolise Antarctica’s distinctive attributes as a hub for scientific collaboration, peaceful co-existence and nature conservation. 

Antarctica, however, doesn’t have an official flag as it is not a sovereign nation.

A lot has since changed on the frozen continent, according to Bartram, a vexillologist — an expert in the study of flags. 

For one, Antarctica has become polluted by microplastics

He has unveiled a new flag, which is part of the Antarctica Flag Redesigned campaign by the non-profit Agenda Antarctica, which is dedicated to the environmental preservation of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. 

The aim is to raise global awareness about the escalating issue of plastic pollution, even in the most remote and pristine regions of the planet.

“Antarctica is facing a serious threat from plastic pollution, which is harming its wildlife, its environment and its future,” Bartram said, emphasising the need for a strong global treaty on plastic. 

“Plastic is everywhere. It’s in the air, in the water, in the ice and in the bodies of creatures that live there. It’s changing the habitat and the landscape of Antarctica. 

“It’s not a clean white colour anymore.”

The updated flag reflects the reality of what’s happening to the continent and is “a wake-up call for the world to take action”, he said. 

Microplastics, defined as plastic pieces smaller than 5mm, have become alarmingly widespread in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, the campaign said.

“Antarctica stands as our last bastion of pristine wilderness, yet it grapples with the pervasive issue of plastic pollution. Microplastics have infiltrated the snow, fish, birds and seawater in this untouched region.”

The flag’s redesign draws on research including a 2022 study by Britain’s University of Canterbury, where every one of the 13 fresh snow samples that researchers collected from Antarctica revealed the presence of these minute particles.

For the updated flag, they built on the nature of the microplastic problem, taking actual measurements and research findings of melted snow to portray a representative proportion of the type, colour, shape and size of microplastics. 

The surge in single-use plastic pollution poses escalating risks to the environment, society, economy and public health, according to the campaign. The alarming increase in plastic production since the 1970s, contributing to environmental degradation, has also affected Antarctica. 

“The United Nations Environment Programme’s (Unep) plastic treaty provides an international legal framework for governments, industries and individuals to assume responsibility. International co-operation, data sharing and co-ordinated efforts are crucial to prevent plastic entry into sensitive regions like Antarctica,” said the campaign. 

Addressing plastic pollution in the continent through Unep’s treaty positions the issue as a global challenge, “advocating for specific measures to tackle Antarctica’s unique vulnerabilities and promoting a comprehensive, legally binding framework”.