We’ve long known that our plastic tends to end up in the ocean. In fact, there are country-sized garbage patches of it in the Pacific Ocean, ones that will ultimately be carried via ocean currents to the western shorelines of South America.
Now it appears that the Arctic Ocean, once a pristine wildlife wonderland, has also been thoroughly polluted by our plastic. A new analysis, published in the journal Science Advances, reveals that there are around 300 billion pieces of plastic floating around up there.
The majority of the plastic is being drawn up from the depths by the thermohaline circulation, a worldwide current controlled by salinity and temperature differentials. It normally delivers warm water to the Arctic, but it appears plastic from the North Atlantic shorelines is also piggybacking along for the ride.
The majority of these bottles, toys, bags, packages, and particles are accumulating in two distinct zones off the eastern coast of Greenland and the Barents Sea, north of Norway and Russia. These “dead end” patches are quickly growing in size to the point where they are starting to rival the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Man-made climate change is chipping at the sea ice cover there too, which means there are less physical barriers to the inward flow of rubbish these days. So, over time, we are essentially watching the replacement of the world’s reflective shield with several islands of used takeaway boxes.
A horrible plastic mosaic - a typical bunch of waste products found in the Arctic. A. C. Cabañas/Science Advances
Worse still, this Arctic trash makes up just 3 percent of the world’s floating plastic waste – the rest remains prevalent in every single other ocean basin on the planet. Welcome to the Anthropocene epoch, ladies and gentlemen.
The results came about after extensive sampling taken at the two aforementioned dead ends up in the frigid northern waters. Lead author Andrés Cózar Cabañas, a professor of biology at the University of Cádiz, told The New York Times that he was surprised by the scale of the results his team uncovered.
“The growing level of human activity in an increasingly warm and ice-free Arctic, with wider open areas available for the spread of microplastics, suggests that high loads of marine plastic pollution may become prevalent in the Arctic in the future,” the team noted in their study. “The uniqueness of the Arctic ecosystem makes the potential ecological implications of exposure to plastic debris of special concern.”
Plastic, in general, takes about 450 years to completely degrade. Until then, it’s often consumed by unwitting fish, which we then eat. As more and more plastic enters the world’s oceans every single year – around 12.7 billion kilograms (28 billion pounds) of it, actually – this effectively means that plastic is becoming an increasingly significant part of our diet.
As ever, what damages the environment also damages us.