A great deal of plastic is manufactured worldwide. Plastics Europe, an industry association, estimates that 288 million tonnes of it was produced in 2012 alone. But over time this ubiquitous substance breaks down, entering the environment and then disappearing.
Scientists know that a percentage of plastic finds its way to the ocean. Microplastics, fibers and fragments less than 5 millimeters long, are often picked up by ocean currents and funneled into gyres of refuse. The most well known is the Pacific Garbage Patch, host to an immense collection of microplastic just beneath the surface. But there is still a good deal of plastic that scientists have yet to track down.
A portion of that remaining plastic has been found in the Arctic Circle. Rachel Obbard, a materials scientist at Dartmouth College, has co-authored a new study published in the journal Earth’s Future in which her team discovered plastic debris trapped in arctic ice dating from 2005 and 2010.
After melting parts of the cores and studying the sediment under a microscope, researchers discovered the following man-made particles: rayon, polyester, nylon, polypropylene, polystyrene, acrylic and polyethylene. Hundreds of these particles were found in a single cubic meter of arctic ice, a finding Obbard did not expect.
“It was such a surprise to me to find them in such a remote region,” she says. “These particles have come a long way.”
As arctic ice melts, the study estimates that 1 trillion pieces of plastic will be released into the ocean in the next ten years. Though the ultimate effect this will have on the environment is unknown, plastic can absorb organic pollutants in high concentrations, posing a health hazard to marine life. And as has been seen in the Pacific Garbage Patch, insects and disease can cling to these microplastics, carrying disease far into the ocean.
More news as this story develops.
The full study can be found here.