During eXXpedition’s eighth Virtual Voyage, the multidisciplinary crew took part in a virtual discussion with Arctic experts to talk about the local challenges of the global plastics issue. This post summarises the thoughts, ideas, challenges and solutions discussed during the session.
The Arctic is the northernmost region of Earth and is home to a unique ecosystem, characterised by seasonal snow and ice cover, treeless permafrost containing tundra and seasonal sea ice.
The Arctic is often perceived as a harsh environment. But difficult living conditions have given rise to unique ecosystems in the far North. Some of the most iconic species in the world are endemic to the Arctic, such as the polar bear, walrus, narwhal, snowy owl and Arctic fox. But the Arctic also contains thousands of lesser-known species, often remarkably adapted to survive in extreme cold and highly variable climatic conditions.
The Arctic is home to more than 21,000 known species of highly cold-adapted mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants and fungi and microbe species. This extensive biodiversity provides essential services and values to people. They provide not only food, but the everyday context and basis for social identity, cultural survival and spiritual life.
The Plastics Issue
Despite its remoteness and low levels of habitation, plastics have been accumulating in the Arctic – with some studies finding higher levels of microplastics than in the infamous ocean “garbage patches”. Plastic debris is found on Arctic beaches, in the water column, in sea ice, sediments and even in the bodies of Arctic birds and mammals. The story of plastic debris in the Arctic often begins with large pieces of waste, like abandoned fishing nets. Nets can entangle fish and marine mammals, and even terrestrial mammals like reindeer when debris washes up on the coast. As the plastic degrades into smaller pieces, it’s ingested by animals of all sizes. Microplastics persist in the Arctic environment and find their way into every part of the food chain.
Local representatives from the Arctic including Anthropologist, Pamela Berg and her two children joined a discussion with the eXXpedition crew to talk about the local challenges of the global plastics issue. Read the highlights below:
- Currents, streams, waves and wind carry marine litter across the seas, while solid waste and wastewater from Arctic communities, and larger communities up-river, contribute to the problem.
- Waste management in small, remote communities is expensive and comes with significant transportation, operation and maintenance challenges.
- Information travels differently. For the majority, internet is very expensive and has a low bandwidth.
- Melting sea ice exacerbated by climate change is depositing plastic stored in the ice into the ocean.
“We have a lot of plastic packaging because it allows food to be transported over long periods of time. Otherwise, we get rotten food from our shipments.”
- Arctic Council projects are providing smaller communities with new tools to better manage plastic pollution.
- The Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) looked at how Arctic communities are successfully managing solid waste to protect the health of residents and the environment on which they depend. The programs are designed to meet the unique needs of each community with a focus on the specific practices, behaviours or infrastructure needs that most impact health and environment.
- The Arctic Council, Arctic States and Indigenous peoples are working together to develop the first regional action plan to address marine litter in the Arctic. The plan focuses on some key sources: fisheries and aquaculture, ships and offshore structures, onshore waste and wastewater management. The proposed solutions include sustainable materials, coastal clean-ups, stronger monitoring and research and outreach.
“Converting waste into something of value happens very naturally in the Arctic. People trade their unwanted items such as chairs or ovens because they are difficult to buy brand new.”
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Thank you to 11th Hour Racing who are supporting this work.