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Earth Science

Trillions of Plastic Pieces May Be Trapped In Arctic Ice 136

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

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

    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.

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