The Arctic, final sink for plastic waste from around the world

The Arctic, final sink for plastic waste from around the world

Plastic debris carried by the current in the Arctic classified by country of origin – J. HAGEMANN


A citizen science project carried out by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) has revealed that plastic waste floating in the remote Arctic Ocean comes from all over the world.

“In 2016 we started working with citizens to investigate the composition of plastic waste on the Arctic coasts,” he explains. it’s a statement AWI researcher Dr. Melanie Bergmann, who came up with the idea for the project together with tour guide and writer Birgit Lutz.

In close collaboration with companies that offer trips to the Arctic, participating tourists collected and recorded plastic waste washed up on the shores of Svalbard. Between 2016 and 2021, 23,000 objects with a total weight of 1,620 kilograms were collected.

“Now we have gone a step further and have investigated where the debris that still had marks, labels or footprints came from,” explains Bergmann. “Our analysis revealed that, in 80%, the clear majority were plastic scrapsadds first author Anna Natalie Meyer of the AWI.

Although most of the items could be classified as coming from fisheries, their point of origin could not be identified. Labels or fingerprints could still be recognized on approximately one percent of the debris, mainly from Arctic countries, especially Russia and Norway.

“We know from previous studies and computer modeling that plastic pollution comes from both local and remote sources,” Meyer says. “Locally, plastic debris finds its way into the ocean from ships and from arctic communities with poor waste management systems. As for remote sources, plastic debris and microplastics are transported to the Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic, the North Sea and the North Pacific by various rivers and ocean currents.”

For example, experts came to find debris on the coast of Svalbard from sources as distant as Brazil, China and the United States. But plastic waste from Europe, especially from Germany, they also ended up in the Arctic, accounting for eight percent of the total. “Considering that Germany is the ‘European champion’ in both plastic production and waste export, this comparatively high share is not all that surprising,” says Melanie Bergmann.

According to the study, the comparison of the new data with that of previous field work carried out on the surface of the sea and on the ocean floor shows that much more debris accumulates on the Arctic coasts, which makes them a kind of final sink. This plastic debris poses additional challenges to Arctic ecosystems, which are already overburdened by climate change. After all, the Arctic is warming four times more than the global average.

“Our results show that even prosperous industrialized countries, which can afford better waste management, contribute significantly to the pollution of remote ecosystems such as the Arctic,” says Melanie Bergmann, AWI expert.

“Consequently, to tackle the problem effectively, it is not only necessary to improve local waste management – especially on ships and in fisheries – it is equally important that global plastic production is massively reduced, especially in industrialized countries in Europe, North America and Asia, since approximately 11% of the world production of plastic reaches our water courses. This once again underlines the urgent need for an ambitious and legally binding UN Plastics Treaty, which is currently under negotiation and should enter into force in 2024,” he explained.


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