We may think of the Arctic Ocean as pristine, but beneath the surface float billions of tiny pieces of plastic. Plastic waste is such a pervasive problem that even the most isolated parts of the world are cluttered with trash.
Disturbing Evidence of Widespread Pollution
In April of 2017, an international group of researchers published the results of a five-year study in Science Advances revealing high concentrations of plastic debris in remote Arctic waters. Their findings emphasized the global scale of pollution. Although the human population in the Arctic region is very low, the researchers discovered that “plastic debris was abundant and widespread” in the Greenland and Barents seas.
The researchers estimated that Arctic waters contain 400 tons (363 metric tons) of plastic waste, composed of around 300 billion individual pieces of plastic. They suggested that the plastic came from far away and traveled to the Arctic Ocean through a combination of natural ocean currents and climate change.
Increasing global temperatures are causing the ice to melt, which opens new pathways that connect the Arctic to the rest of the world. The researchers concluded, “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.”
Sources and Scope of Marine Debris
While the news about the Arctic Ocean may be surprising, ocean pollution is not. There are several known garbage patches throughout the world, where plastic collects in circular ocean currents called gyres.
Plastics enter the ecosystem through outlets such as plumbing systems, beaches, landfills and boats. If this trend continues, by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean, and an estimated 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic, according to estimates from the United Nations Environment Programme.
Fish, sea turtles and many other animals can get caught in large plastics, but microplastics pose an even greater threat, according to National Geographic. “Scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of microplastic in a single square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — that’s about 1.9 million bits per square mile. Most of this debris comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles and Styrofoam cups.”
Microplastics are also polluting the food chain, as they are easily digestible and are mistakable for food, said National Geographic. “As plastics break down … they leach out colorants and chemicals … that have been linked to environmental and health problems. Conversely, plastics can also absorb pollutants … from the seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when consumed by marine life.”
If we ignore this problem, plastic will eventually drastically impact our ecosystems, health and economies.
What Do We Do Now?
The first thing we can do to reduce ocean pollution is to stop creating new plastic waste. Some states have started taxing or banning single-use plastic, such as plastic bags, straws and water bottles. An increasing number of communities are banning plastic bags and bottles as well. Another big pollution culprit is microbeads, which are tiny plastic pellets found in many beauty products and toothpastes. In 2015, the United States passed a law banning microbeads altogether. Eco-conscious consumers can help by recycling, participating in beach cleanups and avoiding single-use plastics.
Even if we stopped polluting altogether, there’s already a large amount of trash in the ocean and no easy way to remove it. According to National Geographic, “The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.”
Conventional methods of trash collection include using nets and vessels. Thousands of volunteers manually collect plastic from remote Arctic islands, though the effort is complicated by the fact that the bags of trash then have to be airlifted away via helicopter, according to a report by CBS News.
Luckily, innovative solutions are forthcoming. A Dutch university student came up with the idea for a solar-powered floating pipe system that catches plastic inside a barrier. His foundation, The Ocean Cleanup, estimates that it can clean up half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years.
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