New Citizen-Science Study Reveals Global Sources of Plastic Debris in the Arctic

A recent citizen-science project conducted by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in the Arctic has shown the value of engaging interested citizens in scientific research.
Over five years, citizens on sailing cruises to the Arctic surveyed and collected plastic debris that had washed up on the shores of Svalbard, which has now been analyzed by the AWI.
The findings, published in the journal Frontiers, reveal that one third of the plastic debris that still bore imprints or labels allowing an analysis of their origin came from Europe, with Germany being a significant contributor.
The study highlights that even prosperous industrialized countries like Germany make significant contributions to the pollution of remote ecosystems such as the Arctic.

While plastic debris is a global problem, with considerable amounts observed in the remote Arctic Ocean, it is still unclear where it all comes from.
The citizen-science project offers valuable insights and found that, at 80%, the clear majority was plastic debris.
Although most of the items could be classified as stemming from fisheries, their point of origin couldn’t be identified.
In roughly one percent of the debris, labels or imprints could still be recognized, primarily from Arctic countries, particularly Russia and Norway.

The study reveals that plastic pollution comes from both local and remote sources, such as ships and Arctic communities with poor waste management systems, as well as from various rivers and ocean currents that transport plastic debris and microplastic to the Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic, North Sea, and North Pacific.
Experts even found debris originating from sources as distant as Brazil, China, and the USA on the coast of Svalbard.

Plastic debris from Europe, especially from Germany, accounted for eight percent of the total, which is not surprising given Germany’s high plastic production and debris exports.
The comparison of new data with those from previous fieldwork shows that much more debris accumulates on Arctic shorelines, making them a final sink of sorts.
This plastic debris poses additional challenges for Arctic ecosystems, which are already overly burdened by climate change.
The study highlights the urgent need for an ambitious and legally binding UN Plastics Treaty, due to enter into force in 2024, and for improvements in local waste management, especially on ships and in fisheries.