AAAS "Humans produced nearly 300 million tons of plastic in 2012, but where does it end up?" by Eric Hand
'Scientists already knew that microplastics—polymer beads, fibers, or
fragments less than 5 millimeters long—can wind up in the ocean, near
coastlines, or in swirling eddies such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
But Rachel Obbard, a materials scientist at Dartmouth College, was
shocked to find that currents had carried the stuff to the Arctic.
'In a study published online this month in Earth’s Future, Obbard and her colleagues argue that, as Arctic ice freezes, it traps floating microplastics—resulting
in abundances of hundreds of particles per cubic meter. That’s three
orders of magnitude larger than some counts of plastic particles in the
Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “It was such a surprise to me to find them
in such a remote region,” she says. “These particles have come a long
'The potential ecological hazards of microplastics are still unknown.
But the ice trap could help solve a mystery: Industrial plastic
production has increased markedly in the last half-century, reaching 288
million tonnes in 2012, according to Plastics Europe, an industry
association. But ecologists have not been able to account for the final
disposition of much of it. The paper shows that sea ice could be an
important sink—albeit one that is melting, says Kara Lavender Law, an
oceanographer at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole,
Massachusetts, who was not part of the study. “There could be freely
floating plastics, in short order.” The authors estimate that, under
current melting trends, more than 1 trillion pieces of plastic could be
released in the next decade.'