As we are well aware, plastic pollution has made its way to the deepest depth of the oceans, the Mariana Trench and has been discovered at the world's highest point, the peak of Mt. Everest. Well, now plastic pollution has been found in the Arctic wilderness. This probably comes to no surprise as the epidemic of plastic waste is just that, an epidemic.
However, the plastic that has been discovered in the world's northernmost region is somewhat surprising. Not because of its presence, but because of the way it looks. In what seems to mimic a survival mechanism, ocean plastic has turned up on beaches looking eerily similar to ordinary pebbles. But of course, this isn't a survival method, there's a science behind the camouflaging.
Scientists refer to these newly discovered plastics as "pyroplastics." Pyroplastics are little chunks of plastic that are created by heat from either the manufacturing process or unknown heating due to the environment. After years and years in the sea, the plastics become weathered, slowly dispelling microplastics into the environment.
While these little stones of environmental destruction are similar to "plastiglomerates"-plastic that has been fused with sand and shells due to campfires-they are not identical. Pyroplastics are almost completely made up of plastic.
"Pyroplastics are evidently formed from melting or burning of plastic and are distinctly different from manufactured (primary and secondary) marine plastics in terms of origin, appearance and thickness," the researchers write in their paper.
"Since pyroplastics have been retrieved by colleagues from Atlantic beaches in Spain and Pacific beaches of Vancouver, they are not a regional phenomenon, and it is suspected that their distribution may be widespread but that documentation is lacking because of a distinctly geogenic appearance."
In other words, the plastics are so similar to pebbles, that they seem to be getting overlooked. The difficulty of identifying these plastics is particularly troubling as they may actually be releasing lead into the environment.
Scientist Andrew Turner of the University of Plymouth, in coordination with a research team of his peers, conducted research on more than 150 pieces of pebble-like plastics found in various parts of the northern hemisphere.
Utilizing various methods of testing, the researchers discovered that these plastic pebbles are mostly made up of everyday plastics, such as polyethylene or polypropylene, or a combination of the two.
However, through X-ray fluorescence testing, the researchers made a terrifying discovery. The small chunks of plastic show traces of lead, accompanied by chromium. This discovery suggests the existence of lead chromate.
Lead chromate, when mixed with plastic, can give the plastic a yellow, red, or orange tint. The fact that the use of lead chromate was reduced by the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive in 2003, implies that these plastics have been in the oceans for more than 15 years.
But that's not the worst part. Some of the samples were found in a marine worm-Spirobranchus triqueter. This finding allows scientists to assume that the lead is being actively spread throughout the oceans via the worms' excrement or possibly passed to the worms' predators.
"Pyroplastics require their own classification within the umbrella of marine litter, and are a source of finer plastic particulates through mechanical breakdown and a potential source of contaminants for organisms that inhabit or ingest them," the team writes in their paper.
More research is needed in order to determine just how much of this plastic is actually in the environment.