Marine debris is defined as manufactured or processed solid material that is discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine or coastal environment. Marine debris may consist of plastic, processed wood, metal, glass, rubber, textiles, paper and other materials. Along the beaches, plastic litter makes up the largest share, but rope, fibres, metal and glass are also frequently recorded.
Plastic is found everywhere in the Svalbard area. There is plastic and beach litter on most beaches around Svalbard. Plastic has also been found in the deep water between Greenland and Svalbard, and in the water and on the seabed in the Barents Sea.
There are estimated to be around 194 pieces of litter per km2. The combined weight is reckoned to be 79,000 tonnes, mostly plastic.
Plastic does not break down, but fragments into microplastics and ends up in the ecosystem. Microplastics are pieces less than 5 mm in length. They may also be present in products such as toothpaste, skin cream, makeup and other cosmetics. Synthetic textiles release huge quantities of microplastics when washed, and these particles/fibres are often not captured by sewage treatment plants and end up in the oceans.
FOCUS: Garbage patch in the Barents Sea
When the debris reaches the sea, it is carried by currents through the water, over national boundaries. The Arctic does not have a high population density nor a lot of shipping, so most of the plastic here is transported by ocean currents from the south. The coastal stream along the Norwegian coast, branching along the west coast of Svalbard is one possible north-bound transport route. The Greenland Sea and the Barents Sea act as a cul-de-sac for this plastic conveyor belt.
On the seabed between Svalbard and Greenland, a large increase in deep-ocean plastic has been recorded – more than 50 per cent from 2002 to 2014. High concentrations of microplastics have also been documented in the surface waters north-west of Novaya Zemlya and on the west side of Svalbard and Greenland.
Scientists fear that, if plastic pollution continues, by the year 2050, the Barents Sea may have accumulated its own garbage patch, like the much-discussed Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This garbage patch extends for 3.5 million km2, making it six times larger than the entire Iberian peninsula.
Microplastic samples from air, ice, water, fish, plankton and the seabed is collected.
Plastic debris harms marine flora and fauna, and degrades coastal areas and ecosystems in general. It also has social and economic consequences.
Effects on marine wildlife
Plastic is especially harmful to seabirds that forage on the surface of the water and confuse plastic with food. This results in internal injury, blocking of the digestive tract and a false sense of satiety. It can also be fatal – especially if the plastic inhibits the uptake of liquid and food. Environmental pollutants in the seawater can be absorbed by the plastic and transferred to the animal that eats it. These chemicals may in turn be absorbed by the animal and lead to high concentrations of toxins.
Tarpaulins and plastic bags can cover plants and benthic fauna on the seabed. This will exclude sunlight and prevent the exchange of oxygen in the area, which can prove fatal for corals and bottom-dwelling animals.
Animals and birds can get trapped in abandoned rope. This can cause a painful death, or serious ailments for the animal if it is unable to liberate itself. Marine mammals that are trapped in ghost nets can drown.
When plastic is washed up on beaches, it becomes a hazard to land-dwelling species. For example, Svalbard reindeer have entangled their antlers in abandoned ropes and nets that drift ashore, proving fatal in many cases.
Plastic is found in the stomachs of many species of animals that live close to or from the sea. The Norwegian Institute of Marine Research has registered that 20 per cent of snow crabs and king crabs have plastic particles in their stomachs. Along the Norwegian coast, three per cent of all cod have plastic in their stomachs. Furthermore, the Norwegian Polar Institute has documented that nine out of ten fulmars in Svalbard have plastic in their stomachs. The fulmar eats plastic because plastic becomes infused with a chemical known as DMS. DMS is found in the plankton that fulmars eat. In this way, the plastic comes to smell like plankton, and seabirds are tricked into thinking it is food.
Marine plastic often has various species growing on it. These might be microbes, phytoplankton, algae or eggs/offspring. This fouling reduces the plastic’s buoyancy, causing it to sink. But if this does not happen and the plastic is carried by wind and currents, this can lead to alien species being introduced into new ecosystems where they do not belong. Although the inhospitable and cold seas of the polar regions will help prevent many species from gaining a foothold, this may change because of the rising sea temperature. This could have serious consequences for the local ecosystems.
Economic and social consequences
Drifting residues of fishing nets can foul ships’ propellers, causing material damage and financial losses. The time lost through such incidents often has to be made up through extra sailings, requiring more fuel.
Plastic also damages the coast – both aesthetically and as a tourist destination. In Svalbard, where an increasing share of the local economy is based on tourism, the deterioration of nature could have negative consequences if tourists perceive Svalbard’s coasts as dirty and no longer untouched wilderness.
Plastic – numbers and usage
Plastic is lightweight, cheap and durable. It has many advantages and it would be difficult to conceive of contemporary society without it. It is easier to transport volumes in plastic bottles than in glass ones. And food lasts longer in plastic. Plastic is also cheap to use for packaging. It is this type of plastic production that is increasing the most. Plastic is durable, which precisely why its presence in our ecosystems is undesirable.
Since 1950, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced. Equivalent to the weight of 80 million blue whales. Almost half of this has been produced in the last decade (2007-2017) alone. In 1976, consumption of plastic per person was 2 kg; in 2017, it had risen to 43 kg. Modern consumer society emerged after World War II and cheap, mass-produced goods started to become popular. Many of these were made of plastic. Everything from toys to glass bottles and zinc buckets began to be replaced by plastic versions. From 1960, plastic articles became ubiquitous in Norwegian homes.
European plastic production is now stable at just under 50 million tonnes a year, whereas, globally, production is on the increase. Worldwide production of plastic amounts to approximately 365 million tonnes. Production is expected to quadruple by 2050. Industry wants more plastic as packaging for goods and manufactured products. Almost a quarter of the plastic used in Norway is for packaging, and the packaging industry is a multi-million turnover business.
Plastic is largely made from oil and gas, which are not renewable resources. To make a kilo of plastic requires 2 kilos of oil. In Norway, the goal is to achieve a material recycling rate of 30% and energy recovery of 50%. Material recycling means converting used plastic into new material, while energy recovery means utilising the energy in plastic for fuel. There are increasing numbers of products being recycled from plastic. It is therefore important to demand products made from recycled materials. It is, however, debatable whether we should recycle more, or whether this should be weighed against other pressures on the environment from transport and production emissions.
Plastic in the ocean is a global responsibility. 30% of plastic in Europe is recycled, 25% in China and 9% in the US. Worldwide, recycling is slowly but dependably on the up, by around 0.7% a year since 1990. If the present trend continues, by 2050, around 44% of all plastic produced will be recycled. The recycling of plastic is very challenging, both economically and technically.
What happens next?
There is increasingly more research on plastics and microplastics in the ocean. The UN’s goal is to reduce all forms of marine pollution by 2025, especially as concerns pollution from land and ocean littering.
The environmental authorities in Norway have allocated NOK 60 million to the clearing of plastics from the beaches and oceans. Five Norwegian ports are taking part in a pilot project in which fishermen can hand in plastic waste. Preparations are also in hand for a return scheme for plastic boats and manufacturer liability schemes for the fisheries and aquaculture industries.
Efforts are also being made to reduce the use of disposable cutlery, plastic bottles, plastic bags and pollution from cosmetics, textiles, paints and car tyres. In 2017, the Norwegian Government set aside NOK 150 million for a fund to assist developing countries in preventing plastic littering.
Sources of plastic debris
Plastic waste in the ocean stems from a wide variety of activities on land and in the water. All plastic in the ocean and on the beaches derives from human activity. In the Arctic, the fishing fleet and shipping are the main sources of the waste found on Svalbard’s beaches. The debris includes everything from vinyl gloves and nylon trawl remains to plastic bags and bottles.
The land-based sources are primarily diffuse littering – plastics that are disposed of or lost by individuals, tourism, industry, illegal waste sites and landfills. From these sources, the waste may be carried to the sea via waterways, drains, storm surges or wind. Sewage is also a potential source of plastic, and in this case mainly microplastics. Synthetic textiles release large amounts of microplastics when washed and these particles and fibres from the textiles are often not trapped by sewage treatment plants.
Monitoring of beach debris
MOSJ (Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen) monitors beach debris in Svalbard, but it is difficult to discern any trends in the recorded volume of beach debris.