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07-06-2024

Norway's battle against plastic pollution represents a global plague

Plastic pollution is a burgeoning global crisis that leaves no corner of our planet untouched. From the deepest corners of our oceans to the otherwise pristine Norwegian coastlines, traces of plastic waste are an unfortunate sight.

This waste not only marks the invasion of an unnerving pollutant but reflects a far-reaching systemic problem that demands global attention.

For many years, scientists worldwide have been sounding the alarm on the consequences of unrestrained plastic pollution, emphasizing the need for immediate intervention. Despite this, we’ve continued to witness a surge in global plastic production and consumption.

Norway, known for its rigorous environmental advocacy, has been pushing for a global agreement to halt the relentless flow of plastics into the environment.

However, it’s essential to note that even Norway has a role to play in generating plastic pollution.

Based on a high-resolution study conducted by researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) along with the Norwegian Air Research Institute (NILU), we now have a comprehensive mapping of the intricate plastic cycle within Norway, right down to individual product and polymer types.

Unraveling Norway’s plastic footprint

Despite its green reputation, Norway discharges approximately 15,000 tons of plastic into the environment annually.

The new study reveals that a staggering 758 kilotons (kt) of plastics find their way into the Norwegian market every year, with 632 kt ending up as waste.

While nearly half of this waste is incinerated, a seemingly minor 2.4% ends up in the environment. Yet, this “minor” percentage equates to a significant 15 kt, which translates to an average of 2.8 kg per capita.

To put this into perspective, Norwegians consume 21% more plastics compared to Europeans and generate twice the amount of plastic pollution as their Swiss counterparts.

This level of plastic consumption corresponds to a concerning 1.5 billion plastic bottles reaching the environment annually.

Consumer packaging and tire wear rubber

The researchers identified consumer packaging, including bottles and bags, as the most significant source of macroplastics. Moreover, tire wear, particularly from electric and hybrid vehicles, emerged as a leading contributor to microplastic pollution.

Despite efforts to limit the release of these products, high consumption rates prevail. We simply use more than we can collect. As such, it’s essential to reduce plastic consumption to curb the pollution at its source.

Tire wear, on the other hand, poses a unique challenge due to the nature of these emissions.

Approximately 6 kt of tire wear rubber is released annually, calling for a rethinking of our mobility and transport choices. Public transport and designing lighter vehicles suggest possible solutions.

Devastating impact of marine plastic pollution

Given the high population concentration along fjords and long coastlines, land-based plastics in Norway easily find their way into the ocean.

While most of the plastic waste released to the environment ends up in the soil, nearly one-third infiltrates the marine environment, causing irreversible impacts on ecosystems.

Marine animals, for instance, often ingest or become entangled in plastic fragments. Moreover, plastic debris interferes with the marine carbon cycle, further exacerbating climate change.

Toxicity of plastic pollution

Adding to the growing list of concerns, plastic products often contain a myriad of toxic additives introduced during production, such as phthalate esters and organophosphate esters.

Through field studies, high amounts of these toxic additives have been found in the livers of Norwegian herring gulls after ingesting plastics. Furthermore, these high additive amounts make their way into recycling processes.

This means recycled plastics can contain elevated levels of additives, posing an additional risk to human health and the environment.

The path forward: Urgent action needed

The research underscores the urgent need to curb plastic production, consumption, and the use of hazardous chemical additives.

Achieving this will require the implementation of stringent policies to mitigate the catastrophic environmental consequences of the plastic economy.

“We emphasize that upstream measures, such as consumption reduction and changes in product design, would result in the most positive impact for limiting plastic pollution,” wrote the study authors.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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