Conference on plastics in the Arctic: PolarJournal presented educational project | Polarjournal
The impact of plastic waste on animals in the Arctic is devastating, from plankton to marine mammals. Many become entangled in lost or illegally discarded nets or ingest large and tiny plastic particles as supposed food. Exchanges at the conference should help develop collaborative solutions to this ubiquitous and deadly problem. Image: Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment

Global plastic pollution, along with climate change and biodiversity loss, is one of the great planetary crises that we must address as soon as possible. Plastic is ubiquitous, even in the Arctic. This was made all the more clear by the 1st International Symposium on Plastics in the Arctic and the Sub-Arctic Region, which was delayed by almost a year due to the COVID pandemic and was now held online. Plastic has penetrated far into natural systems in the Arctic – scientists are finding macro-, micro- and nanoplastics in the atmosphere, on beaches, in sea ice, on the water surface, in the water column, in the seafloor, in seabirds and mammals. They closely monitor developments and work with those responsible to find solutions. Numerous great approaches were documented and discussed at this symposium, but it’s still a long way to go. One possible solution was presented by the author of this article, Julia Hager, in her conference paper, which is attached as a video at the end of the article.

Actually, the scientists, ministers, decision-makers, stakeholders, representatives of environmental groups and the private sector, and even artists should have met in Iceland last April for the exchange. Due to the pandemic, the date was initially postponed to September 2020 and finally had to be held this year as an online-only conference. The organisers, the Government of Iceland and the Nordic Council of Ministers, nevertheless ensured that the event ran smoothly and without any technical problems.
And so, from March 2 to 9, 2021, more than 80 conference participants presented their research findings and solution strategies in the form of presentations, posters or videos, and discussed open questions in live, virtual panel discussions.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said at the beginning of the symposium: “We pay the prize for our throw away plastic habit, so we must bend together across governments, private sector, civil society, citizens and science to move away from this unsustainable consumption and production towards patterns that are circular and good for people and good for the planet.”

“It’s ubiquitous.”

Dr. Melanie Bergmann, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research

The amount of plastic surprised even the scientists
Already on the first day of the conference it became clear how big the man-made problem in the Arctic is. Although the land areas are relatively sparsely populated and there is also less shipping traffic in the Arctic Ocean than further south, plastic pollution is serious and an ecologically relevant factor, even though in general concentrations are lower than in other regions of the world.

These are some examples of plastic debris on the seafloor recorded in the HAUSGARTEN observatory of the Alfred Wegener Institute off Spitsbergen. (A) Styrofoam, (B) Plastic film, (C) Shrimp on a plastic bag, (D) Plastic wrap wrapping a sponge, (E) Plastics from fishing and food waste that attract fish and psyllids, (F) Piece of rubber colonized by anemones and tubeworms, (G) Plastic caught in a sponge. Photos: Parga Martínez et al. 2020,

“It’s ubiquitous,” Dr. Melanie Bergmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) summed it up. However, this does not mean that it is visible everywhere. The beaches on Spitsbergen, Franz Josef Land, Novaya and Severnaya Zemlya and on the Aleutian Islands, flooded with nets, lines, buoyancy bodies, boxes, packing bands from fishing, bottles, foils and countless fragments of undeterminable plastic parts, are only the tip of the iceberg. The largest portion sinks to the ocean floor and probably remains there forever. As Bergmann reported, the number of garbage items observed at the AWI Hausgarten Observatory off Spitsbergen at 2500 meters depth increased 7-fold between 2004 and 2017 to about 6000 items per square kilometer, of which more than half were plastic (Parga Martínez et al. 2020,

Initially, the garbage particles that are ingested by, for example, marine mammals and seabirds, which often do not survive this as confirmed by studies of stomach contents, are no longer visible. Almost completely hidden from the naked eye are the tiny micro- and nanoplastic particles. Smaller than 5 millimeters or smaller than 100 micrometers, they have penetrated everywhere, and scientists find them in the atmosphere, in snow, in sea ice, on the surface of water, in the water column, in the ocean floor, in animal plankton, in shells, in fish, in seabirds.
Off Spitsbergen, there is an average of 95 particles per cubic meter of water throughout the water column from the surface to the seafloor, with the highest concentration at the surface. An average of 4730 particles per kilogram of sediment was found in the seafloor (Tekman et al. 2020, This large difference in concentrations means that the ocean floor is the sink of our plastic waste.

Where does the plastic in the Arctic come from – and how is it being spread?
General pathways of plastic and microplastics into the Arctic environment include fisheries, populated coastal areas, ocean currents from the North Atlantic and North Pacific, sea ice, and the atmosphere. However, identifying the exact sources and pathways of entry remains difficult. Some researchers have been able to identify so-called point sources, such as Dr. Dorte Herzke of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU). According to their measurements, Longyearbyen, the main town of Spitsbergen, is responsible for the input of 21 billion plastic fibers and particles into the Advent Fjords, because the wastewater is discharged untreated into the fjord. The fibers identified, most of which are polyester throughout the Arctic, almost certainly originate from households, where they are rubbed off from residents’ (synthetic fiber) clothing in their washing machines. Longyearbyen is just one example – hardly any Arctic settlement has a sewage treatment plant.

It is not certain that a yoghurt cup from Iceland, a dressing bottle from Norway or a quark cup from Russia actually ended up in the sea in these countries. They could just as well have come from ships, but this is impossible to trace back. Photos: Julia Hager

The plastic pieces, whether large or small, whether in the air, water or sea ice, are constantly moving and being transported from one place to another, unless they have already reached the ocean floor. And even there, they can still be transported further with bottom currents.
Dr. Jennifer Provencher of the Canadian Department of the Environment now reported that certain seabirds, such as fulmars and thick-billed murres, which ingest more plastic than other species, also play a role in transporting plastic debris along with the attached pollutants. A study she was involved in showed that in a colony of thick-billed guillemots on Baffin Island, up to 45.5 million plastic particles, mainly fibers from clothing, are carried ashore by the birds through excreta, which in turn can become hazardous to other creatures there (Bourdages et al. 2021,

From the source, for example, a microfiber originating from a settlement passes through various “stations: First floating on the water surface, it is carried by currents to the open sea and possibly carried by the waves to a depth of one to two meters, where it is ingested by a amphipod. This in turn becomes the prey of a fish, which itself becomes the meal of a thick-billed guillemot. And the fiber travels with it. If the thick-billed guillemot flies back to the colony, it will lose the indigestible remains of the meal as guano along with the fiber perhaps near the beach or in the colony and the fiber is released again and will continue its “journey”. There will hardly be a real “end of the line” for plastic.
This depiction shows only one possible way. There are much more complex processes, which often also end fatally for the animals, if e.g. centimetre-sized particles block or injure the gastrointestinal tract.

Keeping an eye on the situation
From Russia to Spitsbergen, Greenland and Canada to the Bering Sea, there are monitoring projects to track the development of plastic pollution. Some research groups rely on remote sensing, i.e. satellite data, aerial photographs or drone images, such as Marc Schnuwara of BioConsult SH GmbH & Co. KG in Germany. Probably the most pragmatic, inexpensive and technically simple method is used by Liz Pijogge, a pollutant researcher with the government of Nunatsiavut, Canada, in collaboration with Dr. Max Liboiron, associate professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland: they take microplastic samples from the fjords of Nunatsiavut using homemade “nets” made of baby tights and plastic containers – and it works. So much microplastic is drifting from the Atlantic Ocean into Arctic waters through the Labrador Sea that the Inuit are concerned about their health because much of their food comes from the sea. A video about their research can be seen here:

Possibly the simplest microplastic sampling device in use – baby tights stretched around a plastic container make a cheap and perfectly functional microplastic net without much effort. Photo: Screenshot from video, Dr. Max Liboiron

Other monitoring methods include collecting, sorting, counting and weighing plastic waste on the coast or using diving robots to investigate the situation on the seafloor. No matter how the projects are carried out, they are essential for developing solution strategies.

Ways forward
“Ways Forward” – this was the title of the last part of the conference, where solutions were presented on how to effectively address the problem of plastic pollution in the Arctic. These range from prevention in cities and towns, which is the most important strategy, to fishing out plastic waste with the help of fisheries and developing true biodegradable plastics, to introducing new regulations and switching to circular business models among fishing supply manufacturers.

Beach clean-ups involving Arctic travellers, as here on Spitsbergen, make a major contribution to Arctic conservation. However, they are only possible on a very small area and are also only a short-term solution. Sustainable solutions to the problem are therefore of particular urgency. Photo: Julia Hager

In addition, Melissa Nacke, environmental specialist with the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), presented the Clean Seas Project. As part of this, the companies commit to reducing plastic consumption on board, informing their passengers accordingly and carrying out beach cleanup campaigns with passengers. Within 20 years, more than 40 tons of plastic waste have been removed from the beaches of Spitsbergen as part of the Cleanup Svalbard campaign.

All of these strategies are extremely valuable and efficient and must be pursued in any case. But there is one thing they have not yet sufficiently focused on: the individual, who makes countless more or less environmentally friendly and sustainable decisions every day. For the sake of our own health and that of the planet as a whole, our decisions must be made much more frequently in favor of environmental friendliness and sustainability.

This is where my idea comes in, which I presented at the conference:

Joint educational project of PolarJournal and mountain2ocean
Travelers who experience the wonders of the Arctic firsthand are almost always confronted with the remnants of global plastic consumption as well. As described above, many of the passengers help clean beaches. Such actions help to raise people’s awareness. What is missing, however, is information on the origin and distribution of waste, on its effects on nature and on us humans, and on what each individual can do to help solve the problem.

On a few trips, lectures on the topic are offered. I have also given lectures on plastic pollution on most of my nine Arctic trips with very good feedback. My audience was partly shocked by the facts and ready to take action themselves and reduce their plastic consumption.

So far, however, the topic of plastic pollution has not been a regular part of the lectures on board. And this is exactly what we would like to change. In collaboration with AECO and possibly other partners, we will create presentations tailored to the different Arctic regions that can be delivered by any member of the Guide team.
In addition, we will create an online platform with facts and information from the lectures, with detailed information on research projects, with tips on how to prepare for the trip and how to reduce the plastic footprint in everyday life.

My contribution at the 1st International Symposium on Plastics in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic, presenting the joint educational project of PolarJournal and mountain2ocean. Video: Julia Hager

PolarJournal and mountain2ocean, the educational initiative I founded in 2016 to combat plastic pollution, have already launched this project and will implement it by 2022 in collaboration with AECO and in exchange with scientists, Arctic communities and expedition tour operators.

Startling research results, encouraging approaches to solutions and visions that raise hopes
This was the first time a symposium of this type and scale had been held, and it revealed the true extent of plastic pollution in the Arctic. It’s worse than scientists would have expected before they began their research projects. However, it also showed that the exchange of research results and approaches to solutions leads to forward-looking strategies that will come to fruition if the networking of all those who can and must contribute to this succeeds. A big step would be to agree on a global treaty to prevent plastic pollution, as the Nordic Council is asking the United Nations to do. A lasting solution only has a chance of success if people are also involved in the issue, which is as global as it is personally relevant, by reaching their hearts and minds.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Summary of the individual conference days (in English):

The conference presentations are expected to be publicly available from the end of March. The link will be published here.

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