Microplastic pollution in Arctic sea ice at an all-time high

By: Erin O'Neill
Date posted: 24 April 2018

Record levels of microplastics have been found in Arctic sea ice. Up to 12,000 of these tiny plastic particles were discovered per litre of sea ice in samples taken from the Arctic Ocean in 2014 and 2015.

This latest research shows that the problems of microplastics in our oceans are even more far reaching than previously realised.

Dr Sue Kinsey,
Senior Pollution Policy Officer
Marine Conservation Society

Microplastics are particles that come from the breakdown of bigger plastic items. The plastic fragments found came from sources including polyethylene, paint, nylon, polyester and cellulose acetate which is used in cigarette filters.

The majority of particles discovered were microscopically small, meaning that they could easily be eaten by single-celled organisms and small crustaceans, entering the food chain. No one is certain of how harmful this could be for marine life and ultimately for humans.

By identifying the different types of microplastic and ice movement, researchers can identify their possible source. The high levels of polyethylene are thought to originate from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; a gyre of marine debris found in the North Pacific Ocean.

The paint and nylon particles suggest increased human activity in some areas of the Arctic Ocean as the effects of climate change continue to cause the sea ice to retreat and open the region up to higher levels of human exploitation.

Dr Sue Kinsey, Senior Pollution Policy Officer at the Marine Conservation Society said: “This latest research shows that the problems of microplastics in our oceans are even more far reaching than previously realised.

“A particular concern, is the fact that much of this microplastic load will be released as ice melts. This highlights the absolute importance of stopping the flow of plastics to our oceans as soon as possible.

“We can and must act now to prevent further environmental harm to our oceans, wildlife and coastlines and potentially to human health.”

The scientists used a process to bombard microparticles in the ice samples with infrared light and a mathematical method to analyse the radiation they reflected back to identify what was in the samples.

The study revealed that with its process of freezing and melting sea ice, the Arctic is important to the storing and transporting of the plastic particles, as well as being a source of the problem.

The research does not reveal whether the particles released from melting sea ice stayed in the Arctic, although it seems likely the plastic litter sinks into deeper waters quickly as they are often colonised by algae and bacteria which makes them heavier.

The research was carried out by members of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.

Do you want to help stop the plastic tide? We are currently calling on UK governments to put a charge on single-use plastic throwaway items and demanding that big fast food chains stop giving out millions of plastic cups, stirrers, straws and cutlery but instead replace them with reusable or fully compostable alternatives.

Actions you can take

  1. Help us stop the plastic tide
  2. Read our microbead ban position statement
  3. Join the Plastic Challenge
  4. Find out more about nurdles
  5. Join a beach clean
  6. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2017
  7. NGO microbead briefing paper
  8. Learn about Deposit Return Systems

Did you know?…

Since the carrier bag charge came in across the UK, the Great British Beach Clean has recorded 40% fewer bags on beaches

Litter has increased by 135% since 1994, with plastics increasing by a staggering 180%

Over time, one plastic bottle bobbing along in the ocean can break down in to hundreds of tiny plastic pieces