The Arctic Ocean has become a “dead end” for the plastic floating through our oceans, scientists say.
A new study published Wednesday in Science Advances found that the Arctic Ocean is accumulating high concentrations of plastics ― specifically in the Greenland and Barents seas. The plastic trash is brought in from distant regions by currents in the Atlantic Ocean, creating a sort of “plastic conveyor belt,” as the researchers put it, which ends up in the Arctic.
Researchers from University of Cádiz in Spain and other institutions around the world sampled pieces of plastic floating in the Arctic on an expedition in 2013, reports The Washington Post. The researchers estimate that there are around 300 billion tiny pieces of plastic on the Arctic’s surface ― with likely even more on the seafloor below.
Notably, the scientists think that this plastic largely comes from waste dumped in the ocean by North Americans and Europeans.
“This plastic is coming from us in the North Atlantic,” lead author Andrés Cózar Cabañas told The New York Times. “And the more we know about what happens in the Arctic, the better chance we have” of solving the problem.
Around 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, according to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum. That’s the equivalent of tossing the contents of a garbage truck into the ocean every minute. At this rate, oceans will contain more plastics than fish in weight by 2050.
One consequence of ocean pollution is that marine animals can mistake trash for food and ingest it or get tangled in it, causing injury or death, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The researchers who studied the plastic debris accumulating in the Arctic said the problem will likely only get worse.
“It’s only been about 60 years since we started using plastic industrially, and the usage and the production has been increasing ever since,” study co-author Carlos Duarte told the Post. “So, most of the plastic that we have disposed in the ocean is still now in transit to the Arctic.”