By Cami Tellez
In her recent excursion to the Arctic, Dr. Rachel Obbard, assistant professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, noted an accumulation of plastic debris in the Arctic Ocean. A specialist in polar ice, Obbard was concerned about the volume of micro-plastic inside the ice of perhaps one of the most pristine areas of the planet.
Most people are aware of the dangers of wildlife being caught in debris near land, but Obbard has determined the rippling effects that our “plastic footprint” has had in even the most remote areas of the world.
The use of plastic has increased dramatically over the past ten years. During that same ten year period, scientists who study ocean currents began to notice a similar and disturbing phenomena; the five major oceans act as whirling conveyor belts, carrying plastic debris, often invisible to the naked eye, into every main current of the ocean. Since this micro-plastic cannot be detected, it is almost impossible to quantify and record. Most of this micro-plastic ends up frozen when submerged in Arctic waters.
Recent experiments by scientists like Obbard have demonstrated that ice cores in the Arctic Ocean have three more orders of magnitude particles than some counts of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of marine debris particles in the North Pacific Ocean that is recognized by scientists as one of the highest levels known of plastic particulate suspended in the upper water column.
For most of the 20th century, plastic waste in the ocean was considered a simply aesthetic problem with no economical consequences. Recently, however, United Nations Environmental Programmes (“UNEP”) determined that plastic pollution costs the world over $13 billion in global damages, although scientists have disputed that this number is a gross undervaluation. As the melting of the ice caps progress, scientists have estimated that more than 1 trillion pieces of plastic will enter the world’s ocean in the next ten years.
While we may be able to put a price on the economic risks that the plastic debris has caused our society, the damage we have caused to the environment is incalculable. All around the Arctic animals have fallen prey to the dangers of plastic accumulation. Furthermore, because it takes hundreds of years for plastic to decompose, plastic has also affected animals that are not fooled initially by consuming plastic debris or trapped by “ghost nets.” Fish consume food that is tainted by plastic in the water, which then affects commercial fishing industries for years after in Arctic regions. In Arctic sea canyons, plastic bags sink to the seafloor of underwater canyons and may deter gas exchanges, thus making it low in oxygen. Plastic particles absorb high concentrations of gas such as PCB and DDT, increasing these gases in the ocean by thousands of magnitudes.
Should humans consume fish and marine life that have been exposed to this change of environment, it may result in cancer fetus malformation and impaired reproductive ability. Indigenous populations in the Arctic are especially prone to these health risks, given that their diet consists primarily of fish harvested from the Arctic.
On a global scale, though there has been little to no response from Asian and Arab countries concerning the issue of dumping plastic into the world’s oceans, the West has been somewhat receptive to changing its behavior. UNEP has partnered with various organizations around the world to raise general awareness about dumping debris into the ocean and has sponsored ocean cleanups around the world. It has also begun to track the waste in various oceans so that it can monitor the severity of the situation.
Additionally, international agreements, including the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive, indicates that by 2020 it hopes to improve the marine environment in oceans that feed directly into the Arctic. Despite the murky and unclear world of marine waste control, there has been an influx of support and interest from newer generations on how we can solve this growing problem from Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup invention to the Surfrider Foundation’s powerful activist network. Setbacks aside, there is still hope within individuals worldwide that we can live in a world with clean oceans
Cami Tellez is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of projectgreenbag.org ]