A study published in April last year revealed that the Arctic is far from being a garbage-free virgin territory. Between 2016 and 2021 alone, 23,000 plastic remains were collected, including three water bottle caps, two fishing buoys and part of an agricultural box from our country. It is estimated that humanity produces more than 400 tons of plastic each year, the equivalent of the weight of a thousand skyscrapers like the Empire State Building. Of these, a minimum of between 9 and 14 tons – 3.5% of the total – end up in rivers, seas and oceans. Even in the Arctic, from which about 8,000 kilometers separate us. This ocean would already be exceeding its capacity to bury plastic particles in its sediments located on the seabed, according to a work published this Wednesday in the journal ‘Science Advances’.
The seabed has been proposed as a possible deposit for all those tons of supermarket fruit packaging, shopping bags, disposable cutlery, bottles… that we use every day and end up in the sea. The authors of this study analyzed a sediment core dating from between 1933 and 2012, and found that microplastics – particles smaller than five millimeters – were widespread in seafloor sediments, especially near areas of retreating ice. marine in summer, and in higher concentrations than those found in ice in previous studies. The smallest remains, less than 0.1 millimeters, were concentrated in areas with higher chlorophyll content, which would indicate that biological activity could have helped drive their burial.
All these tons arrive dragged by sea currents; through the air, which deposits microparticles on snow and glaciers; from the municipal waste of the communities that live in these latitudes and from the fishing boats, whose nets and ropes represent a large part of the waste found. The worrying fact is that this ‘natural’ capacity to absorb these particles, although it has increased by an average of 3% annually, is far from the increase in the arrival of plastic to these latitudes. This would imply, according to the authors of the study, that “plastics will continue to accumulate in the Arctic unless pollution is drastically reduced.” According to expert estimates, global plastic production is expected to double by 2040 and reach 800 tons.
The problem, “a very stable structure”
«The problem of plastics is complex. On the one hand, they are very versatile, which means they can be used for everything. They can have the consistency of jam or metal. But on the other hand, they take a long time to disappear,” explains Erlantz Lizundia, professor at the Bilbao School of Engineering. Simple disposable forks have a ‘life’ of 400 years. The reason, explains the expert, is in its chemical structure. «They are very stable macromolecules, their chemical bonds are difficult to break. An example is Teflon – the component used in pans to prevent food from sticking. “He is almost invulnerable, there is no one who degrades him.”
The vast majority of the plastics we use come from petroleum, “which complicates both their recycling and their degradation,” says the Basque scientist. “And practically none of them are biodegradable, that is, they are not converted into non-toxic products by the action of microorganisms,” he continues while adding one more factor. «Just because it is biodegradable does not mean that we throw it into a glacier and it disappears. “It is biodegradable under certain conditions that surely do not occur in such cold environments.” Another problem is that of additives. “Other products are added to the plastic itself to give it color or make it more malleable, for example, and these are usually toxic.”
Altogether, more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic have ended up in the sea in recent years. “This waste decimates marine ecosystems by causing the death of more than a million animals a year and, in addition, increases the cost of ocean conservation by billions of dollars,” says the UN. Last year, 175 countries approved a resolution to end plastic pollution and reach a binding agreement by 2024.