A lot of plastic in the Arctic, ‘alternative to petroleum plastic is desperately needed’

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  • Helen Ecker

    editor Climate and Energy

  • Helen Ecker

    editor Climate and Energy

Anyone who thinks the Arctic is so remote and untouched that there is no plastic in the ocean will be disappointed. Also on the cold and northern Spitsbergen the beaches are sometimes full of it. The participants of the international SEES expedition, which ended yesterday, saw and collected significant amounts of plastic.

‘Beach plastic’ is monitored in many European countries, says independent plastic researcher Eelco Leemans, who works with Wageningen University. It is also important to see how much plastic there is on Spitsbergen, he says. “We focus as much as possible on recognizable products. If it is possible to trace the origin, you can turn to the sources.” For example, texts or logos from companies or organizations are searched for.

Much plastic waste is recognizable. A bucket, a washing-up brush, a toy airplane, a piece of a plastic box, a balloon, an intact jerry can, plastic bottles of cleaning agents and pharmacy supplies, all found during the Spitsbergen expedition.

And there is much more, can be seen in this video:

Bags full of plastic beets at the uninhabited North Pole

If the plastic is not cleaned up, it breaks down into small pieces: microplastics. This is also actively sought on Spitsbergen. Jim Boonman from the VU in Amsterdam takes water samples in a lake for research in a laboratory. Because the particles can become so small that they are invisible to the naked eye. “Plastic material doesn’t disappear, it just gets smaller and smaller and smaller. And it piles up in our environment,” he says.

The microplastic is found on glaciers and sea ice, and the question is whether it is also in lakes and rivers, he says. “We find these kinds of particles in the most remote places in the world, where people never get there. And that worries me.”

On average, 80 percent of the plastic waste in the ocean comes from land. The other twenty percent comes from ships. “But here in the Arctic, that relationship is reversed,” says Leemans. “The vast majority here come from ships, i.e. from fishing, and tourist or cargo ships.”

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The expedition’s participants, both scientists and tourists, can help with the search. They collect the plastic waste, which sometimes has all the colors of the rainbow. It is striking that it is not only in the water. Even during a walk across an endless plain, plastic is still found on the land, such as plastic bottles.

The research is therefore aimed at finding the pollutants. Although it has long been forbidden to throw things overboard, apparently it still happens. Therefore, more must be done, say the researchers. The fishermen must, for example, have better waste bins on board, and they must be able to deliver plastic waste to the ports at no cost.

“People often say that it makes no sense to pick up the plastic, because a year later anything is possible. But every bottle saves thousands of pieces of microplastic,” says Leemans.

Oil

Currently, plastic is still usually made from petroleum, and the world has to get rid of it because of the climate. So there is also a lot of research into alternatives. For example by Janneke Krooneman from the University of Groningen. Bioplastic has existed for years, but not all forms are easily degradable in nature, she says. And it is important if the whole world is soon to switch to another type of plastic.

The bioplastic she studies consists entirely of organic material. She wants to know if it also breaks down in cold conditions, such as in the Arctic. Krooneman: “I think it will take a while, but a lot of research is being done. And I expect that very big steps can be taken in the coming years.”

The organic bioplastic, in the form of a cup:

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