Arctic melt can release huge amounts of plastic pieces

Only 15 percent of all garbage dumped in the sea is flushed up on the shore. (Photo: Bo Eide/

More than 1 trillion pieces of plastic trapped in Arctic sea ice could be released in the next decade, a new study shows.


Nearly 300 million tons of plastic was produced in 2012. Large amounts of this ends up in the ocean, near coastlines or in swirling eddies such as the Great Pacific garbage patch. 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.

In a study published recently in Earth’s Future, scientists argue that as Arctic ice freezes, it traps floating microplastics, resulting in abundances of hundreds of particles per cubic meter. That’s least two orders of magnitude greater than those that have been previously reported in highly contaminated surface waters, such as those of the Great Pacific garbage patch.

The authors estimate that, under current melting trends, more than 1 trillion pieces of plastic could be released in the next decade.

The scientists based their counts on four ice cores gathered during Arctic expeditions in 2005 and 2010. The researchers melted parts of the cores, filtered the water, and put the sediments under a microscope, selecting particles that stood out because of their shape or bright color. The particles’ chemistry was then determined by an infrared spectrometer. Most prevalent among the particles was rayon (54%), polyester (21%), nylon (16%), polypropylene (3%), and 2% each of polystyrene, acrylic, and polyethylene. Rayon can be found in clothing, cigarette filters, and diapers, Science Magazine writes.

Another study from 2013 suggests that a garbage patch similar to the existing five large garbage patches in the subtropical oceans may form in the Barents Sea.