Plastic Waste From UK Lands in Arctic

It drifts northward instead of sinking, analsyis shows.

If Arctic birds and fish had their own version of the Brexit referendum, they'd probably choose to part ways with plastic trash that's drifting northward from the UK and killing them.

A new analysis from researchers at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London shows that a large fraction of the plastic waste from the UK that gets into the ocean drifts northward and accumulates in the Arctic Ocean.

The UK isn't one of the world's top sources of plastic pollution, but it does discard more than 2.5 million tons of plastic packaging waste each year, according to a 2015 government report. Less than a quarter of that is recycled.

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The Imperial College researchers used an online tool to track ocean currents and determine the path of plastic waste northward.

According to a press release, the researchers found that after being flushed into the sea from the coastlines of the UK, much of the plastic that doesn't wash back onto the beach or sink to the ocean floor drifts over two years towards the Barents Sea, north of Norway, before circulating in the Arctic.

Once the plastic gets to the Arctic Ocean, some birds, fish and other marine organisms mistakenly eat it, while others are poisoned by it. Some also become entangled in the trash.

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"We're only just beginning to understand the effect that plastic waste has on the fragile Arctic ecosystem, but we know enough about the damage done by oceanic plastic pollution to act and reduce its impact on our oceans and coastlines, one of the Imperial College scientists, Erik van Sebille, explained in the press release.

"From seabirds caught in loops of plastic packaging to polystyrene particles blocking the digestive systems of fish, plastic causes a continuous path of destruction from surface to seafloor. This analysis shows how in the UK we're part of the problem."

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The International Union for Conservation of Nature has called microplastics--tiny pieces of plastic waste that have degraded in the oceans--a "global disaster in the Arctic Ocean."

IUCN says there is evidence that the Arctic is forming a gyre of plastic trash, comparable to the floating masses of refuse found in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Here is the Grantham Institute's website on the larger ocean plastic problem and how to combat it.