A sea of plastic in the North

Concentrations of plastic in Norwegian waters are high and constantly increasing. After analysing the origins of the marine litter, we now know that most of the blame for that lies with us and our neighbours.

Marine litter is one of the world’s fastest-growing environmental problems. Reports are coming in from all over the world about plastic litter on beaches, on the sea floor and in the stomachs of fish, birds and mammals. Concentrations of plastic in Norwegian waters are high and constantly increasing. After analysing the origins of the marine litter, we now know that most of the blame for that lies with us and our neighbours.

Every minute a truckful of plastic is deposited in our oceans. That’s equivalent to eight million tonnes of plastic each year. Since plastic first appeared on the market under a century ago, 150 million tonnes of plastic have accumulated in the oceans. In the time that it takes you to read this report, more plastic will have been dumped in the oceans than the whole amount removed by beach-cleaning volunteers in the county of Nordland in 2017.

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The true sea monster

“Plastic is the true sea monster”, said former Minister of Climate and the Environment Vidar Helgesen after a whale was found with its stomach full of plastic on Sotra in 2017. The whale, which had 30 plastic bags in its stomach, gave the Norwegian population a wake-up call, and it resulted in tens of thousands of Norwegians volunteering to clean up beaches in recent years.

The whale on Sotra wasn’t a one-off. Marine animals with their stomachs full of plastic are being discovered all over the world, and it shows that something is seriously wrong with our oceans. At the ecosystem level, marine litter is already having a negative impact, including here in the north. 90 percent of northern fulmars that live in the North Sea area have plastic in their stomachs. Plastic is also present in around 90 percent of the mussels in the European Arctic, while 20 percent of snow crabs have plastic in their stomachs. It is too early to conclude that marine litter has directly caused a reduction in animal numbers at the population or ecosystem level, but together with climate change, ocean acidification and overfishing, it is certainly affecting our ecosystems.

Floating plastic can be transported long distances, and organisms can attach themselves to these pieces of plastic. Marine plastic can therefore help to spread invasive species. Northern waters are often too cold for them to survive, but climate change and warming waters may allow some of these species to thrive.

Plastic of all sizes is a threat to marine life. Marine mammals and fish get caught up in fishing gear that has been lost, known as ghost nets. These nets are obviously designed to catch fish, so they trap animals which then drown or die of exhaustion. Smaller organisms face a greater threat from much smaller pieces of plastic: microplastics and nanoplastics.

A small threat

When plastic ends up in the oceans, it is exposed to UV radiation, temperature changes and salt, as well as being tossed around in waves and knocked against the shore. The plastic becomes brittle and breaks into smaller pieces. They are what we call microplastics, which are defined as pieces of plastic less than half a centimetre long.

Marine animals mistake these pieces for food, on account of both their shape and size. As a result, plastic enters the food chain. Plastic has been found in the digestive systems of organisms at all levels of the food chain, from small zooplankton to large whales.

One direct impact of microplastics is that animals simply starve to death due to undernourishment. We know little about the potential long-term consequences of having microplastics in the environment. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have studied how fish are affected by consuming nanoplastics. Their results are concerning. Compared with fish in the control group, researchers observed changes in the brains of fish that had been given feed containing nanoplastics. The fish became less energetic, swam more slowly and were less interested in hunting for food.

We don’t yet have much information about how microplastics affect humans. Traces of microplastics have been found in sea salt, honey, beer and drinking water. Microplastics probably pass through the human digestive system, but for the moment we know little about the long-term consequences of consuming microplastics.

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Is plastic always bad?

Plastic was first used in consumer products in the 1950s. It was almost seen as a wonder material, because it was durable, waterproof, mouldable, light and cheap. The properties of plastic make it a suitable material for everything from car and aeroplane parts to medical equipment and single-use packaging.

In 1950 the world produced 1.7 million tonnes of plastic, or just under one kilo per person. Since then, plastic production has multiplied many times over. By the mid-1970s it had risen to 12 kg per person, or 47 million tonnes in total each year. According to Plastics Europe, 335 million tonnes of plastic were produced in 2016. On average we use 43.5 kilos each over the course of a year.

Half of the plastic that is produced today is used in disposable products. Six percent of the world’s oil production and one percent of its greenhouse gas emissions are linked to plastics production, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. By 2050 this may rise to 20 percent of oil production and 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions if the consumption of plastics rises in line with population growth.

There is no doubt that plastic plays a big role in our everyday lives. Plastic has made our cars and aeroplanes lighter, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions. It ensures that our food keeps longer and is safer to transport. Medical equipment has become safer and cheaper since the advent of plastic. Plastic has many good properties, but perhaps it is precisely those good properties that make plastic such a problem when it is not managed properly.

The fact that plastic is very durable means that it can take several centuries to disappear from the oceans. Its low weight means that it can be carried by the wind and transported long distances. Its low price also means that it is considered to be of little worth and therefore quickly ends up in the dustbin.

Many factors contribute to the challenges posed by unmanaged plastics. The large quantities of plastic in the market increase the probability of it not being managed properly. This is particularly true of disposable products. A lack of waste disposal systems, the difficulty of recycling plastic and inadequate infrastructure are all reasons why plastic ends up in the natural environment. According to the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), 38 of the world’s 50 biggest landfill sites are close to ocean and coastal areas.

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The Barents Sea – a dead end for marine plastics

The Norwegian Current and North Atlantic Drift are lifelines for people of Northern Norway. They bring the warm and nutrient-rich waters that provide the basis for high biological productivity in the sea and that help to moderate the temperatures on land. They also carry plastic and other waste northwards, where it ends up on the sea floor, on beaches or floating in current systems. The Barents Sea is the final stop for the plastic in the North Atlantic.

There are no reliable estimates of how much plastic there is in the Barents Sea. It is also difficult to quantify the amount of plastic that is discarded by onshore and maritime activities in Northern Norway each year. Nevertheless, a few studies do give us an idea of how much rubbish there is in these northern waters.

The Institute of Marine Research has documented that on average there are 194 items of rubbish per square kilometre, and that the total weight of rubbish on the floor of the Barents Sea south of Svalbard is 79,000 tonnes. Research by the Alfred Wegener Institute shows that the concentration of plastic in the waters between Svalbard and Greenland doubled between 2002 and 2014.

Some parts of the Barents Sea have higher concentrations of plastic than the waters off heavily populated parts of Southern Europe.

A plastic soup

There are five ocean areas that have high concentrations of plastic on the sea surface. This is due to the Coriolis Effect, which is produced by the Earth’s rotation and results in the circular motion of winds and ocean currents. For example, the Coriolis Effect explains why storms spin in different directions in the northern and southern hemispheres. The prevailing winds and ocean currents carry large quantities of plastic to a central point. On its way there, the plastic is broken up into small fragments and becomes a plastic “soup”. These areas, which are called gyres, can be found in the northern and southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as in the Indian Ocean. There are similar weather systems in the Barents Sea, which could lead to a plastic gyre in the waters off Svalbard.

In spite of the relatively high concentration of plastic in the Barents Sea, concentrations in the Arctic Ocean remain low for the moment. This may be because the ice in the Arctic Ocean acts as a barrier against it spreading. Any increase in Arctic ice melt may therefore make the Arctic Ocean more vulnerable to contamination. Plastic floating on the surface is broken into smaller pieces when it is exposed to sunlight and high temperatures. In the Arctic Ocean, temperatures are much lower and UV radiation is much weaker than at the Equator. As a result, plastic may survive longer in the Arctic Ocean than in warmer waters

The plastic comes from nearby sources

Compared with the rest of the world, there is relatively little unmanaged plastic in Norway and the countries in Northern Europe. That is due to good waste management systems and relatively low population density. As much as 80 percent of global marine litter originates from five countries in Asia, but they aren’t the source of the plastic on the beaches and in the waters of Northern Norway. The marine litter in the north comes from the north.

The consultancy SALT has performed detailed studies of marine plastics to identify the sources of marine litter in the High North. They found that 70 percent of the identifiable waste on Svalbard was Norwegian, while around 20 percent came from other countries. The foreign waste can mainly be traced back to our neighbouring countries or to foreign vessels operating in Norwegian waters.

SALT’s investigations reveal that the majority of waste that ends up along Svalbard’s coastline is fishing-related, particularly from trawlers. Trawling is the most common method of fishing in these waters, and it is associated with a higher risk of fishing gear being lost or damaged than other fishing methods. As fishing gear is designed to sink, you would expect most passive gears like nets, longlines and traps to end up on the sea floor, and not on beaches. Each year the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries performs a cleanup of fishing gear that has been lost. Between the 1980s and 2014, 18,000 nets and large quantities of other gear like ropes and trawl warps were removed.

Globally it is estimated that 20 percent of marine litter comes from maritime activities and particularly from fisheries. In Norway as a whole, maritime activities are responsible for 37 percent of the waste that ends up on Norwegian beaches, according to the organisation Keep Norway Beautiful. Unlike in the rest of the world, most marine litter in Northern Norway, the Barents region and the Arctic comes from the fishing industry. This reflects the high level of fishing activity in these areas and the low population density. The coasts of the Norwegian Sea and North Sea have more waste that can be traced back to domestic consumption.

Ocean currents bring waste from the south, but studies from Northern Norway and Svalbard show that the waste hasn’t travelled as far as previously thought. That means the plastic problem in the north can largely be solved in the north.

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Has marine litter in the High North been deliberately dumped?

SALT’s studies from Svalbard show that rope offcuts represent a large proportion of the waste, both by number of items and in some cases by weight. Closer study of the offcuts shows that they come from mending trawls nets and purse seines.

A large proportion of the beach litter on Svalbard comes from trawl nets. In many cases it is clear that these nets have been cut with a knife, and it is highly likely that the offcuts have been thrown into the sea in conjunction with mending performed on fishing vessels. Careful examination shows that the nets are less than five years old, which suggests that this practice continues to takes place.

In the project Redusere marint avfall fra fiskeflåten (REMAFISK – “Reducing marine litter from the fishing fleet”), the Nordland Research Institute interviewed six coastal fishers about their procedures for handling waste at sea. The fishers said that minor repairs to fishing gear are performed on board their boats. This occurs around six or seven times a year, while bigger repairs are done at mending workshops on land. The coastal fishers reported varying practices for the handling of offcuts produced by repairs, with some saying that they throw them overboard. According to the report, this is such an ingrained habit that the offcuts go over the rail without the fishers even thinking about it. Other fishers reported offcuts being swept up and collected in bags with other waste that can’t be recycled.

Fishers are taking responsibility

The report by the Nordland Research Institute reveals that the fishing industry is concerned about the growing amount of plastic entering the oceans, because the fishing industry is dependent on clean oceans. In a worst case scenario, growing quantities of plastic in Norwegian waters could threaten food production, food security and the reputation of Norwegian fish.

The interviewees in the report describe a change of attitude amongst fishers over the past decade, and particularly in the younger generation.

“It would totally destroy the industry if people started to think that the sea is a big rubbish dump”, says one of the fishers in the report.

The Norwegian Fishermen’s Association has made a huge effort to reduce marine litter over recent years, and in 2018 it adopted a strategy to combat marine litter. The strategy includes six priority measures covering awareness-raising amongst its members, national and international collaboration, and studying and implementing potential upgrades to the fishing fleet.

At the moment there isn’t a standard system for delivering waste in ports and many small ports lack good waste management facilities. According to the Norwegian Environment Agency, half of all ports in Norway don’t have waste management plans, in spite of this being required by Norwegian and European rules. The fishers interviewed by the Nordland Research Institute would like to be able to deliver waste in the same place where they land their catch.

The fishers point out that more plastic waste is being generated than in the past. Fishing equipment used to be made of biodegradable materials, but now it is mainly made of plastics. Domestic waste also contains more plastic packaging than in the past. The growing amount of plastic in equipment and packaging creates more plastic waste, and it is difficult for the fishers to bring it back to land, because they lack waste management facilities on their boats.

Plastic and other waste, particularly lost fishing gear, ends up becoming an “unwanted bycatch” of normal fishing. Fishing for litter is a trial project that is attempting to deal with this challenge. Dozens of vessels are currently part of this scheme, which allows participating vessels to deliver waste that they have “caught” free of charge at ports. Over 100 tonnes of litter was delivered and handled through the scheme in 2018. SALT Lofoten is running Fishing for litter on behalf of the Norwegian Environment Agency.

Beach-cleanups are the most efficient approach

Each year, eight million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans. The most important way to combat marine litter is to stop the supply of new litter, but to reduce the environmental and economic impacts of the problem, we must also clean up the litter that has already ended up in the oceans.

It is estimated that 94% of the plastic that enters the oceans sinks to the bottom. Around one percent is in the water column or on the surface, and four percent is thought to end up along coastlines. At first sight you might think that cleanups should focus on the ocean floor. However, if we look at the concentration of rubbish, the picture changes. The concentration of plastic on the ocean floor is 70 kg per square kilometre, according to the British consultancy Eunomia. The equivalent figures for the open waters and gyres are 1 kg and 18 kg respectively. In the coastal zone the concentration is far higher: two tonnes per square kilometre. Removing plastic from the coast is therefore far more efficient than removing it from open waters or the ocean floor.

Pioneers in the counties of Nordland and Troms have been systematically cleaning up marine litter for many years. Interest in beach cleanups has also increased significantly in Finnmark and Svalbard in recent years.

In Nordland, the number of beach cleanups rose by 35 percent from 2016 to 2017, while in Troms the number rose by 47 percent. In these counties, local waste management companies and municipalities have taken on a great deal of the responsibility for organising beach-cleanups and dealing with the waste collected.

In Finnmark and Svalbard there have been relatively few beach cleanups organised by volunteers, according to Keep Norway Beautiful. That is probably because they have low population densities combined with long and often inaccessible coastlines. Nevertheless, the number of cleanups is clearly on the rise, doubling from 2016 to 2017.

Beach-cleaning volunteers make a big contribution to cleaner oceans

Every year, tens of thousands of Norwegians volunteer to clean up beaches. Keep Norway Beautiful recently performed a survey to find out what is the motivation that drives these volunteers. Half of the respondents stated that they were motivated by a desire to make their local area cleaner.

Norut is carrying out a survey to find out how much Norwegians would be willing to pay for clean beaches. The survey found that people would be willing to pay NOK 2,000–5,000 per household for Norway’s beaches to be clean. The ongoing study shows that tourists on Svalbard would be willing to pay NOK 500–1,000 per visit for clean beaches. Compared with other environmental issues, those amounts are very high. This may imply that marine litter is seen as a threat to people’s wellbeing and enjoyment of the countryside. The fact that tourists on Svalbard are willing to pay so much suggests that marine litter is a threat to the tourist industry.

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Professional cleanups

Technology for removing marine litter is just around the corner, including in Norway. The maritime cluster Marine Recycling Network consists of companies that can see business opportunities related to monitoring, cleaning up and treating marine waste. Many of the companies are based in Northern Norway, and they wish to export their products and services to international markets.

The Norwegian Oil Spill Control Association (NOSCA), an umbrella organisation for Norwegian oil spill control companies, is looking at the possibility of applying oil spill control technology to the fight against marine litter.

One of the challenges technology companies are faced with is that there is not currently a market for cleanup technology. The polluter responsible for ownerless waste like marine litter is generally hard to identity. This means that no-one feels a financial responsibility for cleaning up marine waste, which prevents a market from developing. In the long term this is likely to change, as more and more countries are setting ambitious targets for reducing the amount of marine litter. Plastic manufacturers may be obliged to take greater responsibility for unmanaged waste, while states may allocate funding to meet their national targets. In due course, this may create a market for cleanup technology.

In Northern Norway and Svalbard, beach cleanups have been offered as part of experience tourism packages. This has been done by Hurtigruten and various cruise lines operating in Svalbard, for instance.

Marine plastic as a resource

Plastic is a resource, and from a circular economy perspective, unmanaged plastic is an unmanaged resource. Once plastic ends up in the sea, its properties change, making it very difficult to recycle.

Some manufacturers are nevertheless trying to use recycled marine plastic as a raw material for their products. Adidas is attempting to use marine plastic as a raw material for its trainers. Both Karun, which makes sunglasses, and Bureo, which makes skateboards, use marine plastics or nylon from discarded fishing gear in their products.


A light at the end of the tunnel


Marine litter is a serious and rapidly growing environmental problem, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In 2017 the UN adopted a “zero vision” for marine litter, in line with Norwegian proposals. This goal can be compared to the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The next step will be to sign a binding international agreement with targets for reducing waste – a kind of Paris Agreement for marine litter.

2018 was yet another record year for beach cleanups in Norway. During the year, 100,000 Norwegians went to Norwegian beaches to remove plastic from the coastline.

The government has made marine litter a priority, and each year it allocates NOK 65 million to cleaning up marine litter through the national budget. In addition, it has allocated NOK 400 million of development aid to reducing marine litter in developing countries. In 2018, a Centre for Oil Spill Control and Marine Environments opened on the Lofoten Islands. The centre will build up and share knowledge about oil spill control and marine litter.

Former Minister of Climate and the Environment Vidar Helgesen described marine litter as the true sea monster. We can defeat this sea monster, but it will require local and global action. The fact that the majority of the plastic in the waters of Northern Norway can be traced back to local sources means that the solutions are also local. Each and every one of us can combat marine litter through the choices we make in our everyday lives, like not buying over-packaged goods, depositing waste in the right place and participating in beach cleanups. Politicians must respond to people’s desire to tackle this issue, and make it easy for consumers to make sustainable choices.

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