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Facts

The Arctic – Sparsely populated, yet littered with plastics

Visual story: 14 facts about plastic pollution in the Arctic & 7 policy solutions

Published 21.12.20

The Arctic is one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth, yet it appears to be a sink for plastic pollution. While there are local sources of plastic debris, much of it comes from more populated regions far away.

Here’s a look at what causes the problem, its impacts, and what we can do to solve it.

Fact 1: Ocean currents transport plastic litter from the Atlantic and the Pacific to the Arctic

The Arctic Ocean receives 79 per cent of its water from the Atlantic Ocean and 19 per cent from the Pacific[1]Murray, A. E., Preston, C. M., Massana, R., Taylor, L. T., Blakis, A., Wu, K., DeLong, E. F. (1998). Seasonal and spatial variability of bacterial and archaeal assemblages in the coastal waters near … Continue reading. This water flows into the Arctic as warm, surface currents. Once it arrives, the surface water cools and sinks before flowing out of the Arctic as cold and dense bottom water. This two-way flow, in at the surface and out at the bottom, is referred to as thermohaline circulation. ​

​This circulation pattern is responsible for accumulation of some of the plastic debris in the Arctic Ocean, as the floating plastics drifting on surface currents get trapped in Arctic waters ­­– mainly in the Greenland Sea and the Barents Sea – when the warm water cools down and sinks[2]Cózar, A., Martí, E., Duarte, C. M., García-de-Lomas, J., van Sebille, E., Ballatore, T. J., Eguíluz, V. M., González-Gordillo, J. I., Pedrotti, M. L., Echevarría, F., Troublè, R., Irigoien, … Continue reading.

​Plastics also enter the Arctic Ocean through the Bering Strait and accumulate in the Chukchi Sea, where the density of plastic is higher than in the Bering Sea[3]Mu, J., Qu, L., Jin, F., Zhang, S., Fang, C., Ma, X., Zhang, W., Huo, C., Cong, Y., Wang, J. (2019). Abundance and distribution of microplastics in the surface sediments from the northern Bering and … Continue reading[4]Mu, J., Zhang, S., Q., Fang, C., Ma, X., Wang, J. (2019). Microplastics abundance and characteristics in surface waters from the Northwest Pacific, the Bering Sea, and the Chukchi Sea. Mar. Pollut. … Continue reading.

Fact 2: The Arctic Ocean receives 10 per cent of the world’s river discharges, which can transport plastic debris from inland areas

The Arctic Ocean holds only 1 per cent of global ocean volume, but it receives 10 per cent of global river discharge[1]Holmes, R., McClelland, J., Peterson, B., Tank, S., Bulygina, E., Eglinton, T., Zimov, S. (2012). Seasonal and Annual Fluxes of Nutrients and Organic Matter from Large Rivers to the Arctic Ocean and … Continue reading.

On a global scale, between 1.15 million and 2.41 million tonnes of plastic are discharged in the oceans by rivers each year[2]Emmerik, T., Schwarz, A. (2020). Plastic debris in rivers. WIREs Water, 7 (1), e138. DOI: 10.1002/wat2.1398[3]Lebreton, L. C. M. et al. (2017). River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans. Nat. Commun, 8 (1). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms15611.

One recent study characterized the abundance of microplastics in two Arctic rivers (Ob and Tom)[4]Frank, Y., Vorobiev, E., Vorobiev, D., Trifonov, A.A., Antsiferov, D., Hunter, T.,  Wilson, S., Strezov, V. (2021). Preliminary Screening for Microplastic Concentrations in the Surface Water of the … Continue reading. Beyond that, there is very little specific data on this type of contamination in the Arctic. But the region’s largest three rivers (Lena, Yenisey, and Ob) alone have a total discharge of about 1,700 km3 of fresh water per year, and the contaminants measured in this fresh water indicate that the rivers contribute to Arctic plastic pollution[5]Carroll, J., Van der Zwet, J., Damsteeg, J., W., Slat, B., Andrady, A., Reisser, J. (2008). PCBs, PBDEs and pesticides released to the Arctic Ocean by the Russian Rivers Ob and Yenisei. Environ. Sci. … Continue reading[6]Lobbes, J. M., Fitznar, H. P. & Kattner, G. (2000).  Biogeochemical characteristics of dissolved and particulate organic matter in Russian rivers entering the Arctic Ocean. Geochim. Cosmochim. … Continue reading.

Fact 3: Microplastics are transported to the Arctic through the atmosphere

Microplastic particles have been found in snow samples in the Arctic (see yellow dots on map)[1]Bergmann, M., Mützel, S., Primpke, S., Tekman, M. B., Trachsel, J., & Gerdts, G. (2019). White and wonderful? Microplastics prevail in snow from the Alps to the Arctic. Science advances, 5(8), … Continue reading. Numerical modelling shows that wind transports microplastics just like it transports natural dust particles[2]Zhang, Y., Kang, S., Allen, S., Allen, D., Gao, T., Sillanpää, M. (2020). Atmospheric microplastics: A review on current status and perspectives. Earth-Science Reviews, 203, 103-118. DOI : … Continue reading, which are brought down to the Earth’s surface with precipitation[3]Tirelli, V., Suaria, G. & Lusher, A. L. (2020). Microplastics in Polar Samples. in Handbook of Microplastics in the Environment, 1-42.DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-10618-8_4-1 .

Fact 4: Most marine litter found on Arctic beaches consists of plastics related to fishing activities

It is estimated that 640,000 tons of fishing gear are lost worldwide into the oceans each year[1]PAME, (2019). Desktop Study on Marine Litter including Microplastics in the Arctic. Arctic Council. … Continue reading[2]Macfadyen, G., Huntington, T., Cappell, R. (2009). Abandoned, Lost or Otherwise Discarded Fishing Gear. UNEP Regional Seas Reports and Studies. 185. … Continue reading, and around 95 per cent of this gear is made with plastic[3]Ballesteros, L., Matthews, J., Hoeksema, B. (2018). Pollution and coral damage caused by derelict fishing gear on coral reefs around Koh Tao, Gulf of Thailand. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 135. … Continue reading. About 80 per cent of the litter found on European beaches consists of fishing gear[4]Bergmann, M., Lutz, B. , Tekman, M. B. andGutow, L. (2017): Citizen scientists reveal: marine litter pollutes Arctic beaches and affects wild life , Marine Pollution Bulletin, 125(1-2), 535-540. … Continue reading. Passive fishing gear – like pots, gillnets, or fish traps – is the most common type of lost gear. Often passive gear is lost because excessive catches break poor-quality equipment and ship traffic severs ropes and damages gear[5]Langedal, G., Aarbakke, B., Larsen, F., Stadig, C. (2020). Clean Nordic Oceans main report – a network to reduce marine litter and ghost fishing. Nordic Council of Ministers, 2020-509. … Continue reading. Some fishing gear is seemingly abandoned on purpose[6]Nashoug, B. F. (2017). Sources of Marine Litter: Workshop Report, Svalbard 4–6 September 2016. SALT report no. 1017. https://salt.nu/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/report_wp_1.2_waste_workshop_.pdf.

Fishing is one of the main economic activities in the Arctic. In Alaska, most marine debris stranded on beaches is fishing-related[7]Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation. (2013). Alaska marine debris Cleanup Handbook. Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation. … Continue reading, predominantly ropes and nets originating from Korea, China, Japan, and even Argentina[8]Polasek, L., Bering, J., Kim, H., Neitlich, P., Pister, B., Terwilliger, M., Nicolato, K., Turner, C., Jones, T. (2017). Marine debris in five national parks in Alaska. Marine Pollution Bulletin, … Continue reading. In one instance on Svalbard, among beach litter identified as fishing gear, 28 per cent was Russian, 13 per cent Norwegian, 13 per cent Danish, and 7 per cent German[9]Falk-Anderson, J. (2019). Svalbard Beach Litter Deep Dive. SALT, 18/00194-3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332349910_Svalbard_Beach_Litter_Deep_Dive.

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Fact 5: Lost fishing gear can continue to trap species for several decades

Fish and other marine species can get caught in abandoned and lost fishing gear, resulting in involuntary fishing, also called ghost fishing, which benefits no one[1]Stelfox, M., Hudgins, J., Sweet, M. A. (2016). A review of ghost gear entanglement amongst marine mammals, reptiles and elasmobranchs. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 111, 6-17. DOI: … Continue reading. Lost fishing gear continues trapping species for two years on average, but sometimes, because plastic is so durable, the trapping can continue for decades, until the gear is washed up on beaches or buried in seafloor sediments[2]Jeffrey, C., Havens, K., Slacum, H., Bilkovic, D.M.,  Zaveta, D., Scheld, A., Willard, S., Evans, J. (2016). Assessing Ecological and Economic Effects of … Continue reading.

The decline of sea ice in the Arctic is leading to more fishing and shipping in the region,  which can increase the amount of lost gear and its impact[3]Eguíluz, V. M., Fernández-Gracia, J., Irigoien, X., Duarte, C. M. A. (2016). A quantitative assessment of Arctic shipping in 2010-2014. Sci. Rep, 6, 30682. DOI: 10.1038/srep30682[4]Haug, T. et al. (2017). Future harvest of living resources in the Arctic Ocean north of the Nordic and Barents Seas: A review of possibilities and constraints. Fisheries Research, 188, 38-57. DOI: … Continue reading.

The rapid disintegration of fish bodies trapped in lost fishing gear makes it difficult to accurately evaluate the impact of ghost fishing. In some fishery hotspots, such as along the Norwegian coast, between 20 and 30 per cent of Greenland halibut catches are made by lost gear[5]Humborstad, O. B., Løkkeborg, S., Hareide, N. R., Furevik, D. (2003). Catches of Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) in deepwater ghost-fishing gillnets on the Norwegian continental … Continue reading. In Alaska’s Womens Bay, between 16 and 37 per cent of the red king crab population is killed by ghost fishing each year[6]Long, W. C., Cummiskey, P. A. & Munk, J. E. (2014). Effects of ghost fishing on the population of red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus) in Womens bay, Kodiak Island, Alaska. Fish. Bull, 112 … Continue reading.

arctic plastics dead fish in abandoned fishing net

Fact 6: Plastic debris kills animals by entangling them

Fishing nets lost at sea are responsible for most of the fishing-gear entanglements that can cause death among marine animals. Entanglement affects seals and other pinnipeds in the Arctic[1]Stelfox, M., Hudgins, J., Sweet, M. (2016). A review of ghost gear entanglement amongst marine mammals, reptiles and elasmobranchs. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 111 (1-2), 6-17. DOI : … Continue reading and is suspected to contribute to a decline in fur seal populations in the Bering Sea[2]Zavadil, P., Robson, B., Lestenkof, A., Holser, R., Malavansky, A. (2007). Northern Fur Seal Entanglement Studies on the Pribilof Islands in … Continue reading. Bowhead whales are also injured by lost fishing gear; 12.4 per cent of them present scars from entanglement, and this number might increase with growing fishing activities[3]George, J. C., Tudor, B., Givens, G. H., Mocklin, J., Vate Brattström, L. (2019). Entanglement-scar acquisition rates and scar frequency for Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas bowhead whales using aerial … Continue reading[4]Citta, J. J. et al. (2014). Potential for bowhead whale entanglement in cod and crab pot gear in the Bering Sea. Mar. Mammal Sci, 30 (2),445-459. DOI: 10.1111/mms.12047.

Fact 7: Declines in fish stocks due to lost fishing gear have negative socioeconomic impacts on local people

A decrease in fish populations due to ghost fishing can create serious socioeconomic impacts in the Arctic. In Greenland, the fishing industry accounts for …

In Iceland, the fishing industry accounts for …

Declines in Arctic fish populations because of ghost fishing can also affect global seafood supplies[1]Scheld, A., Bilkovic, D. Havens, K. (2016). The Dilemma of Derelict Gear.Sci Rep 6, 19671. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/srep19671. Arctic countries are major producers of seafood globally. More than 30 per cent of imported seafood on the European market comes from the Arctic[2]Eide, A., Hermansen, Ø., Isaksen, J.R., Troell, M. (2011-2015). Policy Brief 3 “Seafood Production in a changing Arctic” European Union ACCESS Programme[3]Troell, M., Eide, A., Isaksen, J., Hermansen, Ø., & Crépin, A. S. (2017). Seafood from a changing Arctic. Ambio46(Suppl 3), 368–386. DOI : 10.1007/s13280-017-0954-2.

In Norway, the fishing industry accounts for …

Fact 8: Microplastics accumulate in Arctic waters

Microplastics have been found in particularly high density in Arctic surface water[1]Barrows, A. P. W., Cathey, S. E., Petersen, C. W., (2018) Marine environment microfiber contamination: Global patterns and the diversity of microparticle origins. Environ. … Continue reading. Plastics are both transported from remote sources and released locally due to mismanaged waste and wastewater[2]Lusher A.L., Tirelli V., O’Connor I., Officer R. (2015). Microplastics in Arctic polar waters: the first reported values of particles in surface and sub-surface samples. Sci Rep 5, 14947. … Continue reading.

When bigger pieces of plastic float for a long time in the sea, wave action, sunlight, temperature fluctuation, and ice wedging result in their fragmentation into smaller particles[1]Tharp, T. M. (1987). Conditions for crack propagation by frost wedging. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull, 99 (1), 94-102. DOI: 10.1130/0016-7606(1987)99<94:CFCPBF>2.0.CO;2, reaching the size of micro- and even nanoplastic[2]Lusher A.L., Tirelli V., O’Connor I., Officer R. (2015). Microplastics in Arctic polar waters: the first reported values of particles in surface and sub-surface samples. Sci Rep 5, 14947. … Continue reading.

Fact 9: Plastics become trapped in Arctic sea ice and are then released by ice melt

Microplastics, as well as bigger plastic items, get trapped by Arctic sea ice. In one study, sea ice samples from four locations hundreds of kilometres apart in the Arctic Ocean contained from 38 to 234 microplastic particles per cubic meter on average[1]Obbard R. W., Sadri S., Wong Y. Q., Khitun A. A., Baker I., Thompson R. C., (2014). Global warming releases microplastic legacy frozen in Arctic Sea ice. Earth’s Future 2, 315–320. DOI : … Continue reading. When sea ice is formed, microplastics are entrained by the extreme cold-water streams and get trapped in small ice fragments[2]Sebille, E., Aliani, S., Law, K., Maximenko, N., Alsina, J., Bagaev, A., Bergmann, M., Chapron, B., Chubarenko, I., Cózar, A., Delandmeter, P., Egger, M., Fox-Kemper, B., Garaba, Shungudzemwoyo, … Continue reading. Plastic particles have even been found under multi-year ice[3]Kanhai, La Daana & Johansson, Carina & Frias, João & Gardfeldt, Katarina & Thompson, Richard & O’Connor, Ian. (2019). Deep sea sediments of the Arctic Central Basin: A … Continue reading.

As the Arctic sea ice zone shrinks due to climate change, the melting ice releases more and more particles into the ocean[4]Peeken, I., Bergmann, M., Gerdts, G., Katlein, C., Krumpen, T., Primpke, S. and Tekman, M. B. (2018). Microplastics in the Marine Realms of the Arctic with Special Emphasis on Sea Ice … Continue reading. It is estimated that 1 trillion pieces of plastic could spill into the Arctic as the 6 million km2 of multi-year Arctic Sea ice melts[5]Obbard R. W., Sadri S., Wong Y. Q., Khitun A. A., Baker I., Thompson R. C., (2014). Global warming releases microplastic legacy frozen in Arctic Sea ice. Earth’s Future 2, 315–320. DOI: … Continue reading.

Fact 10: Plastic debris ultimately sinks and accumulates in the sediment of the seabed and the coasts

When sea ice melts, plastic debris trapped within is released and sinks to lower layers of water and finally the seabed[1]Bergmann, M. et al. (2017). Vast Quantities of Microplastics in Arctic Sea Ice – A Prime Temporary Sink for Plastic Litter and a Medium of Transport. in Fate and Impact of Microplastics in … Continue reading. Plastic particles accumulate in sediments, particularly in fjords, beaches, and estuaries[2]Harris, P. (2020). The fate of microplastic in marine sedimentary environments : A review and synthesis. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 158. 111398. DOI : 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2020.111398.

Around Svalbard, researchers found that 94 per cent of marine pollution has sunk to the seabed, accounting for 70 kg of pollution per square kilometre[3]Falk-Anderson, J. (2019). Svalbard Beach Litter Deep Dive. SALT. 18/00194-3. at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332349910_Svalbard_Beach_Litter_Deep_Dive. The amount of macro- and microplastic in the sediment there has been increasing over the past 15 years, attesting to the sink effect in the Arctic[4]Parga Martínez, K. B., Tekman, M. B., Bergmann, M. (2020). Temporal Trends in Marine Litter at Three Stations of the HAUSGARTEN Observatory in the Arctic Deep Sea. Front. Mar. Sci, 7:322. DOI: … Continue reading[5]Tekman, M. B., Krumpen, T. & Bergmann, M. (2017). Marine litter on deep Arctic seafloor continues to increase and spreads to the North at the HAUSGARTEN observatory. Deep. Res. Part I Oceanogr. … Continue reading. Sediments in the seabed in the Bering and Chukchi seas in the Arctic contain up to 460 plastic particles per kilogram[6]Fang, C., Zheng, R., Zhang, Y., Hong, F., Mu, J.L., Chen, M., Puqing, S., Lin, L., Lin, H., Le, F.,  Bo, J. (2018). Microplastic contamination in benthic organisms from the Arctic and sub-Arctic … Continue reading.

Fact 11: Plastics accumulate in a wide variety of animal species in the Arctic

Northern fulmars and other surface-feeding birds are especially inclined to ingest plastic, because they forage on a broad range of fish that can be confused with plastic[1]Provencher, J. F., Gaston, A. J., Mallory, M. L., O’hara, P. D. & Gilchrist, H. G. (2010). Ingested plastic in a diving seabird, the thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia), in the eastern Canadian … Continue reading and because the fish they consume have already ingested plastic themselves. In fact, researchers use the percentage of northern fulmars that have ingested plastic as an indicator of plastic pollution[2]Avery-Gomm, S., Provencher, J. F., Liboiron, M., Poon, F. E. & Smith, P. A. (2018). Plastic pollution in the Labrador Sea: An assessment using the seabird northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis as a … Continue reading.

Kittiwakes

Bivalves, crustaceans, deposit-feeding fauna, and other types of coastal invertebrates that feed on sediments also ingest microplastics that have been deposited in those sediments[1]Setälä, O., Norkko, J., Lehtiniemi, M. (2015). Feeding type affects microplastic ingestion in a coastal invertebrate community. Marine pollution bulletin. 102. … Continue reading[2]Iannilli, V., Pasquali, V., Setini, A. & Corami, F. (2019). First evidence of microplastics ingestion in benthic amphipods from Svalbard. Environ. Res, 119 (A), 108811. DOI: … Continue reading.

Copepods, the most abundant zooplankton in the Arctic, feed on algae that are similar in size and shape to microplastics[1]Coppock, R., Galloway, T., Cole, M., Fileman, E., Queiros, A., Lindeque, P. (2019). Microplastics alter feeding selectivity and faecal density in the copepod, Calanus helgolandicus. Science of The … Continue reading. Ingestion of microplastics by copepods can lead to uptake in fish that feed on plankton.

Zooplankton

Fact 12: Microplastics ingested by zooplankton could affect the entire food chain in the Arctic

The ingestion of microplastics by zooplankton may affect their feeding, reproduction, growth, development, and lifespan[1]Botterell, Z., Beaumont, N., Dorrington, T., Steinke, M., Thompson, R., Lindeque, P. (2018). Bioavailability and effects of microplastics on marine zooplankton: A review. Environmental Pollution, … Continue reading. As zooplankton are a source of food for many fish, a decrease in the zooplankton population due to less reproductivity and a shorter lifespan would impact the Arctic food chain[2]Cole, M., Lindeque, P., Fileman, E., Halsband, C., Galloway, T.S. (2016). Microplastics Alter the Properties and Sinking Rates of Zooplankton Faecal Pellets. Environmental Science & Technology . … Continue reading.

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Fact 13: Plastics can release chemicals and other contaminants into the bodies of species that ingest them

Some seabirds and seals in the Canadian Arctic were found to have been contaminated by types of antioxidants and stabilizers that are of emerging environmental concern. These contaminants are heavily used in plastic production[1]Lu, Z., De Silva, A. O., Provencher, J. F., Mallory, M. L., Kirk, J. L., Houde, M., Stewart, C., Braune, B. M., Avery-Gomm, S., & Muir, D. (2019). Occurrence of substituted diphenylamine … Continue reading and are released by plastic degradation. Pollutants present in seawater can also be absorbed by plastic[2]Gallo, F., Fossi, C., Weber, R. et al. Marine litter plastics and microplastics and their toxic chemicals components: the need for urgent preventive measures. Environ Sci Eur 30, 13 (2018). … Continue reading[3]Lohmann, R. (2017). Microplastics are not important for the cycling and bioaccumulation of organic pollutants in the oceans-but should microplastics be considered POPs themselves? Should … Continue reading.

However, the contribution of these inputs to toxic contamination of species may be negligible when seawater pollution is already high[4]Lohmann, R. (2017). Microplastics are not important for the cycling and bioaccumulation of organic pollutants in the oceans-but should microplastics be considered POPs themselves? Should … Continue reading[5]Zarfl, C., Matthies, M. (2010). Are marine plastic particles transport vectors for organic pollutants to the Arctic? Mar. Pollut. Bull, 60 (10), 1810-4. DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2010.05.026.

Fact 14: Microplastic pollution could alter the circulation of carbon within the Arctic Ocean

When zooplankton and small herbivorous fish ingest microplastics, the contamination affects the velocity at which their faeces sink[1]Coppock, R. Galloway, T., Cole, M., Fileman, E., Queiros, A., Lindeque, P. (2019). Microplastics alter feeding selectivity and faecal density in the copepod, Calanus helgolandicus. Science of The … Continue reading[2]Kvale, K. F., Friederike Prowe, A. E., Oschlies, A. A. (2020). Critical Examination of the Role of Marine Snow and Zooplankton Fecal Pellets in Removing Ocean Surface Microplastic. Front. Mar. Sci, … Continue reading – and that can affect the carbon cycle in the Arctic Sea. In the North Pacific, for example, faecal pellets contribute up to 48 per cent of the total particulate carbon flux in the deep sea[3]Wilson, S., Ruhl, H., Smith, K. (2013). Zooplankton fecal pellet flux in the abyssal northeast Pacific: A 15-year time-series study. Limnology and oceanography. 58. 881-892. DOI: … Continue reading. If this phenomenon were to take on considerable dimensions, it could potentially alter the flux of carbon from surface water to the seabed and affect the marine ecosystem. It could also alter growth of phytoplankton[4]Sjollema, S., Redondo-Hasselerharm, P., Leslie, H., Kraak, M., Vethaak, A. (2016). Do plastic particles affect microalgal photosynthesis and growth? Aquatic toxicology, 170, 259-261. DOI: … Continue reading, the vegetable organisms whose photosynthesis is responsible for the absorption of CO2 by the oceans. Theoretically, a high density of microplastics would therefore affect the oceans’ capacity to absorb carbon, but scientists are uncertain about the scale on which this impact could occur[5]Shen, M., Ye, S., Zeng, G., Zhang, Y., Xing, L., Tang, W., Wen, X., Liu, S. (2020). Can microplastics pose a threat to ocean carbon sequestration? Marine pollution bulletin, 150, 110712. DOI: … Continue reading.

What can we do to solve the problem of plastic in the Arctic?


Here are 7 solutions

Solution 1: Prohibit unnecessary plastics and microbeads

Global regulation of single-use plastic is essential to ensure consistent bans[1]WWF, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and BCG. (2020). The business case for a UN treaty on plastic pollution. https://www.newplasticseconomy.org/assets/doc/UN-Treaty.pdf.

At least 82 countries have enacted legislation to prohibit the use, manufacture, or import of plastic bags or to put a fee on plastic bags[2]UNEP (2018). Single-Use Plastics – A Roadmap for Sustainability. UNEP. https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf, but most countries still do not have meaningful restrictions on the bags. Also, plastic bags are only a small part of the problem. A more comprehensive ban on all single-use plastic products – such as cutlery, straws, cotton buds, and packaging – is needed globally[3]European Parliament. (2019). Legislative Resolution on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment, COM(2018)0340 – C8-0218/2018 – 2018/0172(COD). … Continue reading. This would spur companies to completely modify their products and packaging[4]WWF, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and BCG, (2020). The business case for a UN treaty on plastic pollution. https://www.newplasticseconomy.org/assets/doc/UN-Treaty.pdf.

Microbeads are another type of single-use plastic that should be regulated but are often neglected by legislators. Microbeads are used to create a grainy texture in rinse-off personal-care products. After these products are used, the microbeads end up directly in wastewater[1]Ali, S., Parveen, N., Zedan, H. (2019). Plastic microbeads: small yet mighty concerning. International Journal of Environmental Health Research. 1-17. DOI: 10.1080/09603123.2019.1689233. and pass through the filtering systems of sewage treatment plants[2]Wang J, Zheng L, Li J. (2018). A critical review on the sources and instruments of marine 545 microplastics and prospects on the relevant management in China. Waste Manag Res. 36:898–911. DOI: … Continue reading. A complete international ban is needed, which should also ban so-called “biodegradable” microbeads that do not biodegrade fully in aquatic environments[3]Rochman, C.M., Kross, S.M., Armstrong, J.B, Bogan, M.T., Darling, E.S., Green, S.J., Smyth, A.R., Veríssimo, D. (2015). Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads. Environmental Science & … Continue reading. Microbeads can easily be replaced by natural alternatives, including ground fruit pits, nut shells, salt, or sugar.

Solution 2: Redesign plastic products to increase their lifespan and make them easier to repair and reuse

International standards for the design of plastic products are necessary to ensure better quality and facilitate repair. The design should enable disassembly, maintenance, and reuse of plastic components[1]EU. (2020). Circular Economy Action Plan. The European Green Deal. DOI: 10.2775/458852.

For example, a recent European Union directive[2]European Parliament (2019). Directive (EU) 2019/883 of of 17 April 2019 on port reception facilities for the delivery of waste from ships, amending Directive 2010/65/EU and repealing Directive … Continue reading requires producers of fishing gear to pay for recovering defective gear and requires more effective recycling and repair of gear.

Solution 3: Redesign plastic materials so at the end of their useful lives they can be recycled into high-value new products

Rules should also ensure that plastic waste is reused to create new valuable material when possible, such as using recycled plastic pellets as aggregate in concrete[1]Panyakapo, P., Panyakapo, M. (2008). Reuse of thermosetting plastic waste for lightweight concrete. Waste management (New York, N.Y.). 28. 1581-8. DOI: 10.1016/j.wasman.2007.08.006.[2]Sambhaji, P.P. (2016). Use of Waste Plastic in Concrete Mixture as Aggregate Replacement. International Journal of Advanced Engineering Research and Science, 3, 236956. DOI: 10.22161/ijaers/3.12.23[3]del Rey Castillo, E., Almesfer, N., Saggi, O., Ingham, J. (2020). Light-weight concrete with artificial aggregate manufactured from plastic waste. Construction and Building Materials. 265. 120199. … Continue reading.

Plastics that have a high after-use value, because they can be reused or recycled, are less likely to end up in the environment [4]Jambeck, J.R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T.R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., Narayan, R., Law, K.L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347, 768–771. DOI: … Continue reading. Most plastic recycling today is downcycling: it decreases the value of the plastic because the material, made up of polymers, becomes more fragile[5]Hahladakis, John & Iacovidou, Eleni. (2019). An overview of the challenges and trade-offs in closing the loop of post-consumer plastic waste (PCPW): Focus on recycling. Journal of Hazardous … Continue reading.

However, it seems that some particular polymers used in plastics could enable plastic products to be recycled repeatedly[6]Zhu, J. B., Watson, E. M., Tang, J., & Chen, E. Y. (2018). A synthetic polymer system with repeatable chemical recyclability. Science (New York, N.Y.), 360(6387), 398–403. DOI: … Continue reading. Legislation should ensure that the most recyclable types of plastics are the ones used in essential plastic products.

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Solution 4: Eliminate potentially problematic chemicals from plastic production and recycling

The manufacture and recycling of plastics often involves the addition of flame retardants, UV stabilizers, and other potentially harmful chemicals that are mainly used to reduce brittleness and increase flexibility. These chemicals can account for up to 60 per cent of the weight of plastic[1]Gallo, F., Fossi, C., Weber, R. (2018). Marine litter plastics and microplastics and their toxic chemicals components: the need for urgent preventive measures. Environ Sci Eur 30, 13. DOI : … Continue reading, and are released when plastic degrades.

Many of these plastic additives are classified as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) because they alter functions of the human hormonal system and consequently cause adverse health effects[2]Darbre, P. (2020). Chemical components of plastics as endocrine disruptors: Overview and commentary. Birth Defects Research, 112 (17), 1300-1307. DOI : 10.1002/bdr2.1778.[3]Bang, D., Kyung, M., Kim, M., Jung, B., Cho, M., Choi, S., Kim, Y., Lim, S., Duck Soo, L., Won, A., Kwack, S., Lee, Y., Kim, N.H., Lee, B.(2012). Human Risk Assessment of Endocrine-Disrupting … Continue reading. EDCs used in plastic should be regulated under an international convention[4]Kassotis, C. D., Vandenberg, L. N., Demeneix, B. A., Porta, M., Slama, R., & Trasande, L. (2020). Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: economic, regulatory, and policy implications. The lancet. … Continue reading.

Solution 5: Curb the loss of fishing gear

A number of measures could help counter the dumping or loss of fishing gear at sea in the Arctic:

  • Promote or require the marking of gear with the owner’s identification to deter deliberate dumping[1]FAO. (1995). Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, FAO. http://www.fao.org/3/a-v9878e.pdf
  • Make the gear more visible to keep vessels and fishing nets from interfering with passive fishing gear like traps and pots[2]Langedal, G., Aarbakke, B., Larsen, F., Stadig, C. (2020). Clean Nordic Oceans main report – a network to reduce marine litter and ghost fishing. Nordic Council of Ministers. … Continue reading
  • Create better maps of the seabed and coasts so fishing vessels can avoid running into obstacles that might lead to accidental loss of gear
  • Require fishers to report lost gear, so it can potentially be retrieved and so hotspots for lost gear can be identified
  • Increase the number of ports with waste-reception facilities to collect old fishing equipment or gear caught at sea by fishers
  • Improve systems for repairing and reusing gear
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Solution 6: Improve management of waste and wastewater

Best practices for waste management need to be promoted across the Arctic region in order to reduce and control the use of landfills. Poor waste management on land contributes to marine litter in the Arctic. The remoteness of communities can lead to uncontrolled landfills where waste cannot be buried because of permafrost and thus can blow into rivers or the sea. In addition, communities with low population density often lack wastewater-treatment facilities.

One way to increase the recovery of waste is through deposit-refund systems in which consumers pay a deposit when they buy beverage containers and then receive a refund when they return the containers. These systems increase recycling rates[1]Karasik, R., Vegh,T., Diana, Z., Bering, J., Caldas, J., Pickle, A., Rittschof, D., Virdin. J. (2020). 20 Years of Government Responses to the Global Plastic Pollution Problem: The Plastics Policy … Continue reading while also enabling the refill and reuse of containers. In Greenland, all beverage containers have been standardized to enable refills, which has helped the territory achieve a high return rate for bottles[2]Nuukimeq, (2014), 25 years- Report. http://www.nuukimeq.dk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/NuukImeq25aar-web.pdf. The challenge is to extend these types of incentive systems to more areas and to all relevant packaging that can be reused or recycled, as has been done for the expandable polystyrene boxes used in the fishing sector[3]UNEP Decision IG 21/7 (2013). Regional Plan on Marine Litter Management in the Mediterranean in the Framework of Article 15 of the Land Based Sources Protocol. UNEP. … Continue reading.

Solution 7: Clean up Arctic coastlines and seas

Policies and programs to foster clean-up activities that respect the fragile ecosystem[1]Falk-Andersson, J., Larsen Haarr, M., & Havas, V. (2020). Basic principles for development and implementation of plastic clean-up technologies: What can we learn from fisheries management? The … Continue reading should be developed in the Arctic. This could also help to develop citizen science to improve monitoring of the source and type of marine litter[2]Haarr, M.L., Pantalos, M., Hartviksen, M.K., & Gressetvold, M. (2020). Citizen science data indicate a reduction in beach litter in the Lofoten archipelago in the Norwegian Sea. Marine pollution … Continue reading[3]Syberg, K., Palmqvist, A., Khan, F.R. et al. (2020). A nationwide assessment of plastic pollution in the Danish realm using citizen science. Sci Rep 10, 17773. DOI : 10.1038/s41598-020-74768-5.

In recent years there has been an increase in movements to clean up litter on beaches and in other natural areas around the world. More than 20 million people from 180 countries joined World Cleanup Day in 2019. Other initiatives aim to clean up the oceans, such as Fishing for Litter[4]KIMO, (2018-2020). Fishing For Litter. https://fishingforlitter.org, started by KIMO International in 2004, which asks fishers to recover marine litter while they are at sea conducting their normal fishing activities.

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International cooperation is needed to make major changes in plastic consumption and production

Plastic pollution is a global problem, with every nation on Earth contributing to it and being affected by it. So to address it, we need global solutions. Fortunately, momentum is starting to build for an international treaty to address the plastic crisis. More than two-thirds of United Nations member states have expressed openness to a new global plastic treaty, The Guardian reported in November 2020. Reports released in 2020 by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Environmental Investigation Agency proposed possible frameworks and elements for such a treaty.

The Arctic also needs local solutions to address the region’s specific circumstances

International cooperation to fight plastic pollution will benefit the Arctic, but regional efforts are also needed. Actions to reduce marine litter in the Arctic should be adapted to its specific geography, climate, and economics, and take into account the particular sources and consequences of plastic in the Arctic environment. To this end, Arctic states should implement the measures recommended by the Arctic Council Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter.

 

Production team: Fanny-Tsilla Koninckx, Anna Sinisalo, Lisa Hymas, GRID-Arendal.

Maps and infographics: Georgios Fylakis, GRID-Arendal.

Reviewers: Thomas Maes and Peter Harris, GRID-Arendal; Jakob Strand, Aarhus University.

Photo credits: GRID-Arendal / Peter Prokosch; iStock / dottedhippo; GRID-Arendal / Peter Prokosch; GRID-Arendal / Kongsfjord International Scuba School; GRID-Arendal / Kongsfjord International Scuba School; GRID-Arendal / Peter Prokosch; GRID-Arendal / Peter Prokosch; iStock / richardnazaretyan; iStock / pcess609; GRID-Arendal / Lawrence Hislop; GRID-Arendal / Wenzel Prokosch; GRID-Arendal / Peter Prokosch, GRID-Arendal / Peter Prokosch