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Where does plastic debris in the Arctic come from?

Plastic debris pollution is a global problem that impacts even the uninhabited areas of the Arctic. However, while considerable amounts of plastic debris have been observed floating in the remote Arctic Ocean, it is still unclear where it all comes from. 

In a project led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), citizen scientists went on sailing cruises to the Arctic to survey and collect plastic debris that had washed up on the shores of Svalbard. The team found that one third of the debris which still had labels or imprints allowing an analysis of their origin came from Europe, and particularly from Germany. These findings show that even prosperous industrialized countries such as Germany contribute substantially to the pollution of remote ecosystems.

“From previous studies and computer models, we know that plastic pollution comes from local and remote sources alike,” said study lead author Anna Natalie Meyer, a researcher at AWI. “Locally, plastic debris finds its way to the ocean from ships and from Arctic communities with poor waste management systems. As for remote sources, plastic debris and microplastic are transported to the Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic, North Sea, and North Pacific by various rivers and ocean currents.” 

For instance, the scientists found debris originating from countries as distant as Brazil, the U.S., and China, as well as from Europe. Among the European countries contributing the most to Arctic plastic pollution was Germany, with debris originating from there accounting for eight percent of the total amount. 

“Considering that Germany is the ‘European champ’ in terms of both plastic production and debris exports, this comparatively high percentage isn’t so surprising,” said study co-author Melanie Bergmann, a marine ecologist at AWI.

“Our results highlight that even prosperous industrialized countries, which can afford better waste management, make significant contributions to the pollution of remote ecosystems like the Arctic. Accordingly, in order to tackle the problem effectively, not only does local waste management – especially on ships and in fisheries – need to be improved. It’s equally important that global plastic production be massively reduced, especially in the industrialized countries of Europe, North America, and Asia, since roughly 11 percent of the global plastic production finds its way into our water ways.”

“This underscores once again the urgent need for an ambitious and legally binding UN Plastics Treaty, which is currently being negotiated and due to enter into force in 2024.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science. 


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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