UK plastic waste in the ocean ends up in the Arctic

05 July 2016

A large fraction of UK plastic waste that ends up in the ocean accumulates in the Arctic, where it harms one of the most fragile and remote ecosystems on earth. This is according to a new analysis by experts in ocean currents who are presenting at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition.

There is already a considerable amount of plastic pollution found in Arctic waters and ice.. Here, marine organisms mistakenly eat, are poisoned by, or become tangled in floating plastic, which damages their health and can kill them. Now researchers from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London have provided evidence that waste from the UK is contributing to the problem.

Erik van Sebille, who leads the Imperial team, has followed the path of the UK’s plastic waste using ‘’, a tool the team designed to track ocean currents. After being flushed into the sea from the coastlines of the UK, he found that 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. 

The team are at the Royal Society this week (5-10th July) presenting their research into what happens to plastic waste in the ocean, in an exhibit titled Plastic not fantastic in our oceans. Visitors can quiz the scientists about how plastic end up in the oceans and the damage done once there. They can also engage in a discussion about workable solutions. 

Dr Erik van Sebille, Grantham Lecturer in Oceanography and Climate Change at Imperial College London, said:

"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. 

"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.

"It would be impossible to ban plastic, and undesirable as it is, it’s a useful material that offers many benefits. We should instead have a holistic approach to improving the situation, including social and behavioural, chemical and engineering solutions - aiming to minimise the amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans and make sure it degrades quickly and safely if it does."

Millions of tonnes of plastic are washed into the ocean each year – in 2010 an estimated 4.7 million to 12.7 million tonnes entered the oceans. Plastic waste gets flushed into the ocean from many sources such as storm water discharge, which carries street litter or landfill to streams and rivers; poorly filtered waste-waters, which may still contain small plastic particles from cosmetics and clothing; sewage overflows due to heavy rain; extreme weather events; illegal dumping; industrial waste discharge and littering on beaches.

Once at sea, wind and ocean currents can drive plastics across the globe – far away from where they first entered the water. The sun and waves also degrade plastics, breaking them down into many thousands of tiny microscopic pieces of plastic, given the name ‘microplastics’.

Of all the plastic that has ever entered the ocean it is estimated that just 1% is floating on the surface - between 7,000 and 236,000 tonnes. The rest sits below the surface, on our beaches or in the stomachs of marine animals who live by our coastlines, where plastic harms the greatest number of living things.

There is huge demand for plastic for packaging, building and construction materials; automotive, electrical and electronic equipment; agriculture, medical and other uses. In 2014, global plastic production increased by 4%, rising to 311 Megatonnes – 40% of which was for packaging alone. The UK is one of the biggest users of plastic in Europe and makes up 7.7% of the plastic demand for the 28 European countries (behind Germany 24.9%, Italy 14.3%, and France 9.6%).

The Imperial College research team presenting their work at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition have produced a Grantham Briefing Paper summarising the ocean plastic pollution challenge and making recommendations towards solutions in the UK.