Global plastic pollution, along with climate change and biodiversity loss, is one of the great planetary crises that we must address as quickly as possible. Plastic is ubiquitous, also in the Arctic. This was made all the more clear once again by the
Actually, the scientists, ministers, decision-makers, stakeholders, representatives of environmental groups and the private sector, and even artists were supposed to have met in Iceland last April to exchange ideas. 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
On the first day of the conference, it became clear how large 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 if concentrations are generally lower than in other regions of the world.
In a nutshell, “It’s ubiquitous,” as Dr. Melanie Bergmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) said. But that doesn’t mean it’s visible everywhere. The beaches on Spitsbergen, Franz Josef Land, Novaya and Severnaya Zemlya and on the Aleutian Islands, which are flooded with nets, lines, buoyancy bodies, boxes, packing bands from fishing, bottles, foils and countless fragments of plastic that can no longer be determined, are only the tip of the iceberg. The largest portion sinks to the ocean floor and likely 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,
Not visible for a while are the garbage particles ingested, for example by marine mammals and seabirds, which often do not survive, as studies of stomach contents have confirmed. Almost completely hidden from the naked eye are the tiny micro- and nanoplastic particles. Smaller than 5 millimetres or less than 100 micrometres, respectively, 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 seabed, in animal plankton, in mussels, in fish, in seabirds.
Off Spitsbergen, there is an average of 95 particles per cubic metre of water in the water column from the water surface to the seafloor, with the highest concentration at the surface. In the seafloor, an average of 4730 particles per kilogram of sediment was found (Tekman et al. 2020,
Where does the plastic in the Arctic come from – and how is it being spread?
The general pathways of plastic and microplastics into the Arctic environment are 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 remains difficult. Some researchers have been able to identify so-called point sources, such as Dr. Dorte Herzke from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU). According to her measurements, Longyearbyen, the main town of Spitsbergen, is responsible for the input of 21 billion plastic fibres and particles into the Adventfjorden, as the wastewater is discharged untreated into the fjord. The fibres identified, most of which are polyester throughout the Arctic, almost certainly come from households, where they are washed out of residents’ (synthetic fibre) clothing in their washing machines. Longyearbyen is just one example – hardly any Arctic settlement has a sewage treatment plant.
Plastic particles, whether large or small, whether in the air, in the water or in sea ice, are constantly on the move and are 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 Canada’s Department of the Environment has 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 murres on Baffin Island, up to 45.5 million plastic particles, mainly fibres from clothing, are carried ashore by the birds through their excretions, where they can in turn become hazardous to other creatures (Bourdages et al. 2021,
From the source, for example, a microfibre 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 washed by the waves to a depth of one to two metres, where it is ingested by an amphipod. This in turn becomes the prey of a fish, which itself becomes the meal of a thick-billed murre. And the fiber travels with it. When the thick-billed murre 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”. It is unlikely that there is something like a final destination 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 from BioConsult SH GmbH & Co KG in Germany. Probably the most pragmatic, inexpensive and low-tech 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. Large amoounts of microplastic drift from the Atlantic to Arctic waters through the Labrador Sea and the Inuit are concerned about their health, since much of their food comes from the ocean. A video about their research can be seen here:
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” – 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 communities, which is the most important strategy, to fishing out plastic waste with the help of fisheries and the development of genuine biodegradable plastics, to the introduction of new regulations and the switch to circular business models among manufacturers of fishing gear.
In addition, Melissa Nacke, environmental specialist at the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), presented their Clean Seas Project. Within the framework of this project, companies commit to reducing plastic consumption on board, informing their passengers accordingly, and conducting beach cleanups with passengers. In 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 these strategies are extremely valuable and efficient and must be pursued further by all means. But there is one thing they do not yet sufficiently focus on: the individual human being, who makes countless more or less environmentally friendly and sustainable decisions every day. In the interest of our own health and that of the entire planet, 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 up beaches. Such actions help to raise people’s awareness. What is lacking, however, is information on the origin and distribution of the waste, on its impacts on nature and on us humans, and on what each individual can contribute to solving 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 fixed part of the lectures on board. And this is exactly what we want to change. In cooperation with AECO and possibly other partners, we will create lectures that are tailored to the different Arctic regions and can be given 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.
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
For the first time, a symposium of this type and scale was held, and it revealed the true extent of plastic pollution in the Arctic. It is worse than the scientists would have expected before starting their research projects. But it also showed that the exchange of research results and approaches to solutions will result in forward-looking strategies that will come to fruition if the networking of all those who can and must contribute succeeds. A major step would be to agree on a global treaty to prevent plastic pollution, as the Nordic Council is demanding of the United Nations. However, a lasting solution only succeeds if the 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): https://www.arcticplastics2020.is/index.php/en/
The conference presentations are expected to be publicly available from the end of March. The link will be published here.