Study: Arctic has become 'dead end' for at least 300B plastic bits

Dive Brief:

  • A new study published in Science Advances has documented large quantities of plastic in the Arctic Ocean, a low estimate of 300 billion individual pieces, as reported by The Washington Post and others. The study was led by the University of Cádiz's Andrés Cózar with 11 other researchers from eight different countries.
  • During a seven-month expedition in 2013, the team found high quantities of plastic in the Greenland and Barents seas that were carried by ocean currents. Based on various factors they have hypothesized that large amounts of plastic have also sunk to the ocean floor.
  • The vast majority of material collected was categorized as "fragments," which were found in higher concentrations than in the Mediterranean Sea or subtropical gyres. This indicates the Arctic plastic may be older and has broken down more as it traveled. Because population is sparse in the area and shipping traffic is limited the researchers believe this material may have come from North America and Europe.

Dive Insight:

The more researchers learn about the ocean plastic situation, the worse it looks. The plastics industry, major manufacturers and government agencies are all working to keep this material out of the water. Yet local programs have struggled to keep up and environmental groups are losing patience with corporate sustainability plans. Talks are ongoing for a more proactive international approach though the situation is rapidly worsening.

Based on previous findings it's now estimated that around 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, with much of it collecting in five ocean gyres or washing up on beaches around the world. A recent report from the Ocean Conservancy estimated that 250 million tons of plastic could enter oceans by 2025 and an oft-cited Ellen MacArthur Foundation report has forecast there could be more plastic than fish by 2050. If temperatures continue to rise in the Arctic Ocean as projected, researchers believe that could allow more plastic to travel into its waters or possibly disperse older material that has been frozen.

Ideas for capturing this material run the gamut from giant barriers to collection boats with onboard fuel conversion technology to cleaning beaches as frequently as possible. Some research indicates beach cleanups may be the most effective method to focus on initially, though the scope of this problem will likely allow room for all types of solutions. A recently introduced bipartisan bill would allow states to request federal cleanup funding in the way they can currently request natural disaster cleanup aid, and some feel the comparison may not be far off.

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Filed Under: Collections & Transfer Recycling