Marine plastic pollution is fouling the Arctic as well as posing a broader planetary crisis. But scientists still have much to learn about the problem, which a senior United Nations official on Tuesday ranked as a top global concern alongside climate degradation.
“Carried by the currents, waves, and wind, plastic pollution is found on Arctic beaches, in the water column, in the sea ice, in the sediments, in Arctic birds, in mammals,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environmental Programme.
Andersen’s comments came during the opening session of the International Symposium on Plastics in the Arctic and the Sub-Arctic Region, organized as part of the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
Symposium on Plastics
The symposium was originally scheduled to be held in 2020 but was postponed and then moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, the need to address ocean litter did not disappear, according to Andersen. Indeed, the problem, she said, has become even more urgent as vast amounts of face masks, plastic gloves, single-use food packaging, and other throwaway symbols of the pandemic have found their way into the oceans.
“We are not going to make them the enemy, we need them for COVID-19,” she said. “But this plastic waste stream threatens to negate strides that have been made in the public awareness around plastics and the fight against disposable items.”
150 million tons
There is no precise figure for how much marine plastic litter there is; the simple vastness of the oceans makes it impossible to know for certain, as does the wide variety of sizes, types, and locations of plastic debris. Scientists’ best estimate, however, is that there are probably 150 million tons floating around, ranging in size from giant fishing nets to microplastics, tiny fragments of once-larger items. Another 8 million tons are added each year. How much is in the Arctic is unknown, but one recent study found plastic particles in all but one of 97 seawater samples, and sea ice is known to contain extremely high levels of microplastics.
“Plastic litter can be found literally everywhere in our environment, with most of it ending up in our oceans,” Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, the Icelandic foreign minister, said. “We cannot continue down this road any longer.”
Focusing leaders’ attention on the plastic crisis
Iceland has made addressing plastic pollution one of the priorities of its two-year Arctic Council chairmanship, which draws to a close in May. At that time, representatives of the eight Arctic countries are expected to agree on standards that will form the basis of improved scientific study of plastics in the region. Þórðarson underscored that research is needed to identify how plastics are reaching the region’s waters.
“Knowing the extent of the problem will bring us closer to developing responses,” he said.
Although it is not possible to determine the origin of much of the plastic that ends up in the Arctic, studies of what can be identified suggest that only some of it entered the water from the Arctic. Often, scientists say, it is transported from other oceans, or, studies of sea ice suggest, it is deposited there by rivers, many of which pass through urban or industrial areas.
“Plastic waste flows from rivers to the oceans; it has no problems crossing borders,” Krista Mikkonen, the Finnish environment minister, said.
This, she explained, is why the countries of the Nordic Council, which Finland currently heads, are pushing for the UN to agree on a measure that will prevent plastic pollution.
“The world is experiencing a traumatic challenge combatting plastic pollution in the environment,” she said. “Plastic pollution is global problem that requires a strong global response.”
Scientists participating in the first day of the symposium repeatedly expressed surprise at the amount of plastic that studies were revealing. “Basically, it’s ubiquitous,” said Melanie Bergmann, a marine ecologist and senior scientist with Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research.
But even as progress has been made identifying the geographic origin of much plastic litter, and, in some cases, which type of activity it stems from, scientists are only starting to understand what growing amounts of plastic litter mean for wildlife, and, ultimately, humans.
In some cases, the effects of plastic are obvious, if disturbing. One of the pictures the symposium is featuring shows a seal with a deep scar around its neck. The injury suggests that it swam into a piece of discarded fishing net as a pup. Unable to free itself, the net gradually tightened as the seal grew, cutting into its flesh. If that is indeed what happened, the seal was lucky it escaped with only a scar; getting stuck in a net can doom a seal to death by gradual strangulation over the course of several years.
Less obvious is the effect on animals that consume plastic. Studies have shown that 70 per cent of northern fulmars, a type of seabird that is common in the Arctic, have plastic in their systems. Samples of their waste indicate that the plastic they consume is not excreted.
“We know plastic is being ingested by lots of Arctic animals, but we know very little about how it is affecting the ecosystem,” said Eivind Farmen of the Norwegian Environment Agency.
Pollution prevention is key
So far, removing plastic pollution is largely limited to occasional beach clean-ups of larger items. Some work is being done to figure out how to remove microplastics from sediment, but, for now, there is little that can be done about it.
Instead, the best use of the few resources that are available for addressing plastic litter would be to prevent it from getting into the water in the first place, reckons Kine Martinussen of Keep Norway Beautiful, a conservancy.
One way to do this, she said, is to take up the matter directly with the fishing industry and owners of commercial vessels, both of which account for large amounts of plastic litter.
“We have a long list of the items of that we find. We have a sort of OK understanding of how they travel,” she said. “But we don’t know what’s happening at the littering moment, or how we can alter the routines and make sure that it doesn’t happen.”
Another thing to do: remind ourselves that, like it or not, we are all litterbugs.
“The media in Norway will sensationalize the find of a bottle from Great Britain on our shores. And that will be in the public imagination for a while,” said Martinussen. “But in Britain they will have the same article, only it was a Norwegian item.”