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Plastic waste in the Arctic stems from all over the world

In a citizen science project, participants of Arctic trips collected litter on the beaches of Spitzbergen for a scientific survey. The origin and composition of the collected plastic debris were analysed by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. According to the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, one third of the clearly identifiable plastic litter comes from Europe and some of it also from Germany.

For the study, tourists had collected debris at 14 remote Arctic beaches during shore excursions from 2016 to 2021. A total of 23,000 pieces with a total weight of 1.62 tonnes were gathered from a total area of 38,000 square metres, according to the authors of the study. Eighty percent of the garbage collected was plastic litter, according to the survey, although the exact origin of most of the fragments could no longer be determined. The team led by marine biologist Melanie Bergmann from the AWI investigated in more detail where exactly the litter that still bore the data of origin actually came from. According to co-author Anna Natalie Meyer, also of the AWI, it was possible to draw conclusions about the origin of about one percent of the garbage on the basis of inscriptions or imprints. Most of these pieces came from Arctic countries such as Russia (32 percent) and Norway (16 percent). So did the oldest item identified, a fragment of a bottle, dating from the 1960s. It is known from earlier measurements and AWI computer models that there are local and distant sources of plastic pollution in the Arctic. Some of it enters the Arctic Ocean locally from ships and Arctic settlements. In the current survey, the researchers also found plastic garbage from very distant countries such as Brazil, China and the USA. This plastic litter enters the Arctic Ocean via numerous rivers and ocean currents from the Atlantic, the North Sea and the North Pacific. According to the AWI analysis, eight percent of the identifiable waste came from Germany. The majority of the total litter found was due to fishing and shipping, the study said. There needs to be better waste management, especially on ships and in fisheries, the scientists urge. "Our results make it clear that even rich and environmentally aware industrialised nations like Germany, which could afford better waste management, contribute significantly to the pollution of distant ecosystems like the Arctic," says AWI expert Melanie Bergmann. "Therefore, to effectively address the problem, it is not only local waste management - especially on ships and in fisheries - that needs to be improved. At least as important is the massive reduction of global plastic production, especially in the industrialised nations of Europe, North America and Asia, as about 11 percent of plastic production enters our waters." Bergmann also said that the ambitious and legally binding global plastics agreement of the United Nations, which is currently being negotiated and is expected to come into force in 2024, was particularly important for the protection of the seas (see also the next article: "UN agrees on global ocean protection agreement").

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