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Earth Science

Trillions of Plastic Pieces May Be Trapped In Arctic Ice 136

Posted by samzenpus
from the plastic-ice dept.
sciencehabit (1205606) writes "Humans produced nearly 300 million tons of plastic in 2012, but where does it end up? A new study has found plastic debris in a surprising location: trapped in Arctic sea ice. As the ice melts, it could release a flood of floating plastic onto the world. From the article: '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.'"
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Trillions of Plastic Pieces May Be Trapped In Arctic Ice

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  • This reminds me of that passage in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun [amazon.com] where the inhabitants of a far-future Earth note how the debris of past ages is all around them:

    I have heard those who dig for their livelihood say there is no land anywhere in which they can trench without turning up the shards of the past. No matter where the spade turns the soil, it uncovers broken pavements and corroding metal; and scholars write that the kind of sand that artists call polychrome (because flecks of every color are mixed with its whiteness) is actually not sand at all, but the glass of the past, now pounded to powder by aeons of tumbling in the clamorous sea.

    Instead of aeons needed to turn glass to microparticles, humanity has managed to litter the seas with plastic bits in only around a century. If humanity goes extinct, perhaps one day visitors from another planet would know there was once sentient life here from the remains of our PET bottles and beer six-pack rings in the ice?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      There was a story on NPR radio a couple days ago..

      http://www.npr.org/2014/05/21/313157701/why-those-tiny-microbeads-in-soap-may-pose-problem-for-great-lakes

      If I remember right those micro plastic beads absorb toxins, and anything that east them is also exposed to toxins, such as fish, then humans not to mention the damage they cause to the environment.

      Maybe a little of topic, but the article is about plastics, and the Arctic Ice.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 23, 2014 @07:40AM (#47073197)

        Plastics that are still in visible pieces are nuisance, and all oceans have tons and tons and TONS of plastic based flotsam - I worked as a sailor before and even in the middle of a big ocean we saw plastic garbage floating

        But the real danger are those teeny tiny plastic particles

        Most plastic breaks down after prolonged exposure to sunlight, and they kept breaking apart as time goes by, until they became teeny tiny plastic (polymer) particles which inevitably end up in the food-chain (sea creatures - little fishes - bigger fishes - entrees in restaurants - people's stomach) and sooner and later all of us start eating food containing plastic particles

        Yes, even those so-called bio-degradable plastics only degrade until they become teeny tiny polymer particles, and then stop degrading

        What kind of problem will those plastic particles do to our health ? Anybody knows ?

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      I recall reading somewhere - and I hope a historian can come along and correct this - that most modern settlements are at a significant elevation because they're on top of the middens and trash of all the previous settlers on that site. If we actually dug out the areas we currently stand on, we'd find all sorts of interesting trash.

      • by captainpanic (1173915) on Friday May 23, 2014 @06:56AM (#47073125)

        Firstly a disclaimer: I am not the historian you asked for (i.e. no expert). But I do have 2 cents to add to this comment.

        I think cities/towns were often built on high ground as a prevention against flooding. People want to live near fresh water for irrigation, but still keep their houses dry.
        Therefore, the main elevation of the town centers is not a giant pile of old trash, but a natural elevation (also known as a "hill"). But it is true that people would discard old items into a canal or river, or just in the mud, and in old cities you will almost always find something if you dig down.

        • by Sockatume (732728)

          True, but the effect I was thinking of was more conspicuously artificial.

          • by cusco (717999)

            When we were in Rome a few years ago there was a ruin undergoing excavation in the middle of the city. You could walk over to the edge of the excavation and look down about 7 or 8 meters to where the work was being done, since the subsequent 20 centuries of occupation had added that much elevation. There are places like the Parthenon which have been in continuous use and are in a slight dip in the terrain because trash was not allowed to accumulate there. IIRC they had to stop a planned subway expansion

            • I gotta say, are we talking about the same Parthenon? The one built at the top of a hill overlooking Athens as pretty nearly the sole structure on the hilltop?

              It doesn't precisely show the elevations, but:

              https://maps.google.com/maps?o... [google.com]

              is one view, or perhaps this will do better:

              http://www.greatbuildings.com/... [greatbuildings.com]

              As you can see, it is pretty much on top of a mesa. So I'm not sure where your "slight dip in the terrain" could possibly be.

              I only point this out not because your argument is implausible in gene

              • by Anonymous Coward

                Well, he said he was in Rome when he saw it, so I think you are probably not talking about the same Parthenon, as the one he was talking about is imaginary.

                • by Optali (809880)
                  The Pantheon?

                  Well, this one is not on a hill (AFAIK) but neither is in underground. It's still standing very nicely: Pantheon [wordpress.com]
                  I guess it was "Luigi's Pizza Emporium" :)

              • by cusco (717999)

                My bad, I meant Pantheon in Rome. Brain burp.

            • by Optali (809880)
              The change in elevation is due to two causes: A) when people in the past wanted to build a new hose they tore down the old and used it to fill the foundations. B) The river PO periodically flooded Rome and remember that big parts of the city were abandoned for many centuries. I don't know how you come to the idea that humans may let dirt and mud accumulate in their houses and buildings. AFAIK the Romans also new how to use a broom, don't you agree?
              • by cusco (717999)

                Sure, but on the other hand municipal trash removal ceased for centuries at a time. No one living more than a block from the river is going to haul their trash any further than the abandoned lot down the street if they don't have to. And motor vehicles have only been around for a little more than a century, do you have any idea how much waste horses produce? In some cities of Europe there is a paved street, a meter or more of accumulation, another paved street, more accumulation, and the current modern s

      • I recall reading somewhere - and I hope a historian can come along and correct this - that most modern settlements are at a significant elevation because they're on top of the middens and trash of all the previous settlers on that site. If we actually dug out the areas we currently stand on, we'd find all sorts of interesting trash.

        Chicago is about 3' higher than it's supposed to be and juts out into the lake quite a ways because it's built on top the great fire of 1871. There are still a few buildings left from before the fire that sit significantly bellow street level. They look odd when driving through the area.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G... [wikipedia.org]

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Actually most of the buildings and homes you see below street level, are due to the way the sewer systems were created and NOT due to the fire.
          See: Raising of Chicago [wikipedia.org]

      • by Optali (809880)
        Well the difference is that this "thrash" was mostly broken bricks and dirt (as in mud) filling the space occupied by houses. Thrash was disposed for centuries in holes , sometimes to fill in old and dry wells. Organic stuff broke apart easily so that even the thrash of these groves isn't more than a few shards of ceramics and minute pieces of bones. But we are not talking about the type of stuff we have today like plastics.
    • by invid (163714)
      Great book.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    When I read stuff like this, sometimes I'm ashamed to be a human being. :(

  • by dinfinity (2300094) on Friday May 23, 2014 @05:57AM (#47072981)

    nearly 300 million tons of plastic in 2012 [...] reaching 288 million tonnes in 2012

    http://bash.org/?2999 [bash.org]

    Estimates of how much of that production has been trapped in Arctic ice provided in the article:
    - "[some of] much of [the total amount of plastic produced]"
    - "more than 1 trillion pieces of plastic"
    - "abundances of hundreds of ['fragments less than 5 millimeters long' selected using a microscope] per cubic meter"

    Would have really hurt to estimate the weight of those fragments? One plastic bag could easily end up as a million pieces of plastic. About one plastic bag or 10 grams of plastic per 10.000 cubic meters sounds a lot less dramatic, I guess.

  • by nimbius (983462) on Friday May 23, 2014 @05:58AM (#47072985) Homepage
    these tiny bits exist for a few reasons.
    1. Natural photodegradation permits older plastics to disintegrate into smaller pieces. new plastics impregnated with photo-inhibitors resist this for a seemingly infinite span of time unfortunately.
    2. industrial processes like bead-blasting and resurfacing may sometimes rely on plastics instead of formed metal shot as its cheaper in many cases. plastics are also often fluid-formed from tiny pellets or beads shipped across the world, so naturally losing a conex full of them would contribute.
    3. cosmetics. Pomace, apricot and peach pits used to act as surfactants in many soaps however seasonal limitations of production and particulate dimension were always a factor. They also didnt perform well in gelatinous suspensions like body washes. reprocessing and shredding waste plastics from other manufacturing processes however proved far more economical and reliable. As a result, the "micro beads" in your bottle of Gillette body wash are likely made from reprocessed Gillette body wash bottles that were damaged or defective during the injection moulding process.
  • You can't clean up all that garbage without sifting through all the ice...... Thanks, I needed an excuse to continue helping melt the ice cap :p
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Environmentalist told us it was much better to use plastic bags than paper. Their argument is that it saved trees. My argument is that as long as there is industry that needed paper, tree farms would exist and an equilibrium state would also exist. Paper biodegrades quite nicely, thank you. So instead of reason, we now have billions of plastic bags that won't decompose in the lifetime of my 50th generation of descendants.

    • by hubie (108345)
      I don't ever recall environmentalists advocating single-use plastic bags over paper.
      • by Stumbles (602007)
        I do. Just go back to the last century like the 60s and 70s.
        • by Anonymous Coward
          I do too. Thing is, you have to look at the entire process to determine which is "environmentally better". It takes a lot of energy to make paper bags...
          • by Stumbles (602007)
            I don't know that is actually true and have not seen any studies to support one being "more efficient" than the other. Even if paper were less efficient it is way more biodegradable than any plastic. As others have mentioned in this thread, plastic will degrade but not totally like paper. I just remember back when "tree huggers" seemed to be constantly in the news and were more than willing to support any solution so long as some owl had someplace to perch.
        • Don't need to go back that far (or maybe it was the beginning?). I've heard about it in late 80s...
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by NotDrWho (3543773)

          I remember it too. It was during the tree-hugging phase in the 70's, IIRC. Environmentalism is a notoriously faddish religion. And at that time it was all the rage to "save the trees." In the 80's this would be dumped in favor of the new hip "save the ozone layer."

        • by Layzej (1976930)

          Just go back to the last century like the 60s and 70s.

          Ok, I went back to the 60's. It was nutty, no doubt, but no one mentioned plastic vs paper while I was there. Perhaps you could include a citation?

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      I doubt environmentalists anticipated that we'd be getting a polyethylene bag large enough to fit a whole turkey for every single purchase. The very rapid pivot against plastic bags seems entirely justified, and the right decision, doesn't it?

      • I doubt environmentalists anticipated that we'd be getting a polyethylene bag large enough to fit a whole turkey for every single purchase.

        Doesn't your grocery store double-bag? I get TWO such polyethylene bags per item. :-P

      • by operagost (62405)
        The turkey might fit (if it's small), but the bag is so thin that it's unlikely to actually HOLD it. I don't think the size of the bag (which is much less than of the old brown paper bags) is the problem.
      • by Optali (809880)
        Not to mention the waste in oil. Maybe some people don't give a shit about the environment.... but wouldn't they love to be able to pay less to tank their SUV full for a cheaper price? And the same goes for anti-AGW positions ("They are going to tax us to dead", Really? You love paying big bucks for fuel instead?)
    • And people once imagined that nuclear power would power homes, batteries, cars, etc. As we learn more about a given item, viewpoints change. So when the threat seemed to be "chopping down tons of trees to make paper bags", plastic seemed the better option. Now, though, we see that plastic bags are an even bigger threat to the environment so that's changed. Reusable canvas bags are now considered the best option.

  • Sea ice age (Score:3, Insightful)

    by WhiteZook (3647835) on Friday May 23, 2014 @06:42AM (#47073097)
    Most of the current sea ice is less than 10 years old, as the ice regular melts in the summer, and is replaced by fresh ice in the winter. It's hard to imagine that there are significant amounts of plastic trapped in the ice compared to plastic that is free floating in the ocean.
    • Most of the current sea ice is less than 10 years old is suspiciously in need of references.

      • Zook is right about that. Older sea ice has been decimated in the last decade [icdc.zmaw.de].
        The evidence is that his imagination regarding plastic trapped in the sea ice is lacking, but he's right about the age of Arctic sea ice.
        • There could still be a lot of plastic in the Arctic of course. Some currents are more likely to collect the plastic in one area, and it's plausible something like that is happening in the Arctic. But adding the "trapped in ice" doesn't really make sense, if there's a constant exchange between water and ice, and each having the same concentration of plastic.
          • But adding the "trapped in ice" doesn't really make sense, if there's a constant exchange between water and ice, and each having the same concentration of plastic.

            The article looks at ice cores containing plastic, so "trapped in ice" is what they found.

            They don't speculate on mechanism, but bits of plastic are lighter than ice and larger than water molecules. It's plausible that they would have a tendency to remain right against the underside of the sea ice if they are in the water, and would get caught up early in the freeze. It's also plausible that they would be caught in the ice by one or both ends when the saltwater rivulets form, and not tend to flush into th

  • But Rachel Obbard, a materials scientist at Dartmouth College, was shocked to find that currents had carried the stuff to the Arctic.

    So you dump stuff into a giant whirlpool and you're shocked to find that the stuff ends up in various random place. Maybe they thought it would magically disappear ? Oh sorry, we are talking about science.

    I was looking at a river last fall and was shocked to see all the dead leaves agglomerated at a few random place.

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      The world's oceans aren't just a big bucket where everything mixes together. In fact one of the characteristic features of the Arctic ocean is that it doesn't strongly interact with the neighbouring systems. That's why it's surprising that there's a significant amount of pollution there.

      Now, if you knew even the first thing about oceanography, you should have known that. I'm not sure if you just have a blind spot for your own lack of information on this topic, or were wilfully ignorant, but assumed you were

  • It is stuff like this that bums me out, not the fact that we are so young on this planet that we are surprised that climate isn't stable.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      What in the World do you think is causing AGW? Pixie dust?

      Unfortunately, most people do not understand the fact that we humans are art of this planet and since there are BILLIONS of us, we are having a horrible effect on this planets ecosystem.

      People will deny that it's possible because the planet is so big and old and survived "worse" but they fail to remember that many species DID NOT survive what the Earth has gone through.

      AND a tinny tiny bacteria are able to take out a human. Just like tinny tiny hum

      • I like tinny humans. Helps to solder them together better.

      • We aren't even nearly as warm as we've been in the past via the flora and fauna record and we've stalled for the past 6 years, actually cooled the last couple of years, which no models predicted. It's theory, not fact because there are holes that can't be explained in the theory. Societies have grown and collapsed due to climate change in the past so what we need to focus on is dealing with climate variation. Check out the snow pack in the Colorado Rockies right now, runoff hasn't even taken off yet due

        • "...we've stalled for the past 6 years, actually cooled the last couple of years..."

          I realize there's a legitimate debate over how many years constitutes which, but I think you fall in the category of people confusing weather and climate. I remember back in 2008 when AGW-skeptics said there had been a decade of global cooling [ideonexus.com] by using 1998, the warmest year on record, as their baseline. Then increasingly warmer years eliminated that talking point. Now you are saying it's cooled the past couple of years, so

        • by cusco (717999)

          Why do conservatives have such a difficult time understanding the difference between weather and climate? Oh, that's right, short-term limited-complexity thinking is endemic in that mindset, changes that take decades or centuries to develop are unfathomable, and local effects are somehow supposed to be able to be extrapolated to cover the entire planet. Locally, Mount Baker and Mount Rainier have been trading world record snowfall levels, and the cons think it disproves global warming. Climatologists an

          • I think we are at an inflection point. So it is your thesis that higher humidity has led to higher snow packs in the Colorado river basin and temperature has no effect on that? Why is the runoff just staring now? Go to http://lakepowell.water-data.c... [water-data.com] and see that due to the cool spring runoff is just starting and the lake is 2-4 degrees cooler than it usually is this time of year. I suppose higher humidty caused the long winter in the North Eastern US this winter as well? It caused the unusually cool

            • by cusco (717999)

              **Sigh**

              You really have no concept of the difference between climate and weather, do you? If you want to use the Rockies as your example then look at the very old photos of Glacier National Park, and then look at pictures taken from the same viewpoint today. Your high snow pack is weather, the receding glaciers are climate. It's depressing to look at my photos of the Cordillera Blanca that I took in 1987 and images of the same peaks today. Even then I was late, photos in the museum from half a century b

              • You couldn't address any points could you? Did you know before photographs existed we have evidence of glaciers covering the northern US? Due to climate change glaciers advanced and retreated. Our current observations line up nicely with the Vostok ice core. You know that during the little ice age in Europe glaciers advanced and then retreated after it warmed? Tell me about the humidity and it making winters colder again.

                • by cusco (717999)

                  What point? Where you claim that I said temperature has no effect on snow packs? Or the one where you claim that I said humidity is the only factor in local weather? No, I didn't bother to "address" them, they're such fraudulent strawmen that it's not worth the effort. Yes, I'm quite aware of the prehistoric glaciers, go look up Milankovich Cycles. Oh, and go ask an Australian what they thought of the weather the last six months.

  • Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?”

    ~George Carlin

  • Really ... a "scientist" to whom it never occured that the ocean's currents (and winds) might carry the stuff to the Antarctic? The presence of the plastic was the least surprising part of the article. BTW, it's also in the air and likely at high altitude, if anyone cares to look. Don't know that for sure but it would simply make sense. Also, look for it at the very bottom of the ocean; no it didn't sink, it was carried there by currents.

    • by cusco (717999)

      The amount of it is surprising, as the Arctic (not Antarctic) ocean is fairly cut off from the rest of the oceanic circulation patterns. BTW, currents mostly stay in horizontal bands separated by different temperature and salinity gradients, there is very little vertical circulation (few exceptions, like the Humbolt Current, but that's the general rule). Plastic in the benthic depths would pretty much have to be carried there by the sinking of near-surface organisms.

  • by clonehappy (655530) on Friday May 23, 2014 @09:26AM (#47073707)

    Wait...as it melts?? It melts every year, then freezes again. It's not like some barrage of plastic that's been sequestered in ice for billions of years is suddenly going to be dumped into the ocean because of the Arctic sea ice "melting", a thinly veiled reference to global warming as if the melting isn't happening every summer. And if it was created in 2012, then gets released, then a little bit freezes in the ice next year...it doesn't sound like this is even a story!

    As an aside, what happened to Slashdot? What happened to our ability to critically think in general? Crap like this should never see the light of day on the main page, it's almost as if we're just expected to consume whatever the headline is alluding to, truth be damned, and subsequently have the proper level of outrage as is determined by the +5 comments. What happened to active discourse, agreeing to disagree, and civility even amongst people with different ideologies? Every day, I read more and more comments along the lines of "If you disagree with me, you should be executed." It makes me really, really sad and angry at the same time that we've been effectively reduced to the mental capacity of neanderthals when it comes to our science/religion of choice (and really, what's the difference anymore?)

    • by Anonymous Coward

      What would be really shocking is to see an environmental headline that isn't "Worse then we previously thought". What could be worse than Michael Mann's runaway hockey-stick of doom? We shouldn't even have ice in the arctic in summer at this point in time according to Mann, Gore and Hansen.

      • by Megane (129182)

        Yes, it would be shocking to see a headline use "then" when it should use "than".

        Oh wait, that's not so shocking after all because of our failure of an education system.

      • We shouldn't even have ice in the arctic in summer at this point in time according to Mann, Gore and Hansen.

        Northern summer sea ice volume has dropped 60% over the past 35 years [washington.edu].

        But I wonder if you have misinterpreted projections of Mann and Hansen.

        I notice Mann was an author on a paper [psu.edu] about the Antarctic Ice Sheet, but I can't find the one about the Arctic Ice that your refer to. Do you have a citation?

    • Wait...as it melts?? It melts every year, then freezes again. It's not like some barrage of plastic that's been sequestered in ice for billions of years is suddenly going to be dumped into the ocean because of the Arctic sea ice "melting", a thinly veiled reference to global warming as if the melting isn't happening every summer. And if it was created in 2012, then gets released, then a little bit freezes in the ice next year...it doesn't sound like this is even a story!

      The loss of the Northern Summer Sea Ice will change ocean dynamics. The released plastic could make its way to other oceans.

    • And if it was created in 2012, then gets released, then a little bit freezes in the ice next year...it doesn't sound like this is even a story!

      It does sound like it is accumulating year over year, otherwise how do you explain the "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." - http://news.sciencemag.org/ear... [sciencemag.org]

    • How your post was modded insightful is anybodies guess, and I think the answer lies in what you say, about the "mental capacity of neanderthals".

      To begin with, did you RTFA?
      It doesn't appear that you did.

      The surprising findings from the research was that the arctic sea ice is a collector of sorts for the unfathomably large amount of plastic spewed into the oceans by man and his industrial offal. The amount of plastic found was "three orders of magnitude larger than some counts of plastic particles
      • The amount of plastic found was "three orders of magnitude larger than some counts of plastic particles in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch" Maybe that isn't interesting enough for you, but it is for me.

        Did you RTFA? It also says that the researcher used a 0.22 micron filter to catch the particles out of the melted sea ice, and a 333 micron filter to catch particles out of the water from the garbage patch. Do you know how many orders of magnitude smaller that filter is? And how many orders of magnitude more crap that filter will catch?? Or was it more convenient for you to not mention that fact?

        Again, this is common sense passed off as sensationalist bullshit trying to cause some alarm as if

  • "Plastic."

    • It's actually "Plastics." I don't know where this quote came from, other than I have heard it many many times playing Civilization V, but it's definitely in the plural.
  • This must be ancient alien plastic.

C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas l'Informatique. -- Bosquet [on seeing the IBM 4341]

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