No man is an island, and when it comes to pollution, not even an island is an island. Plastic from the UK has been found floating all the way in the Artic, worsening the environmental disaster currently happening in the region.
A team of scientists from Imperial College has worked out how the oceanic currents move plastic around the world by using Plastic Adrift, a tool that uses decades of data from drifting buoys to track where the plastic travels.
The research is being presented to the public at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, and it focuses on the impact that the UK has in polluting the North Atlantic.
Plastic in the North Pole affects marine organisms as they either eat it by mistake or are poisoned by it, or they become tangled in it. Flotsam from Great Britain, according to Plastic Adrift, doesn’t wash back to shore but instead drifts for over two years towards the Barents Sea in Northern Norway before circulating in the Arctic Ocean.
"We’re only just beginning to understand the effect that plastic waste has on the fragile Arctic ecosystem, but we know enough about the damage done by oceanic plastic pollution to act and reduce its impact on our oceans and coastlines,” said team leader Dr Erik van Sebille, Grantham Lecturer in Oceanography and Climate Change at Imperial, in a statement.
"From seabirds caught in loops of plastic packaging to polystyrene particles blocking the digestive systems of fish, plastic causes a continuous path of destruction from the surface to seafloor. This analysis shows how in the UK we’re part of the problem."
In 2010, an estimated 4.7 to 12.7 million tonnes (5.2 and 13.9 million tons) of plastic was thrown into the ocean. Once it enters the water it is then broken down by the Sun and waves into microscopic pieces that sink to the bottom and are eaten by animals. Only 1 percent of oceanic plastic is on the surface.
“It would be impossible to ban plastic, and undesirable as it is a useful material that offers many benefits,” added Dr van Sebille.
“We should instead have a holistic approach to improving the situation, including social and behavioral, chemical and engineering solutions – aiming to minimize the amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans and make sure it degrades quickly and safely if it does.”
A paper summarizing potential solutions for this grave problem can be read here.