Plastics in the Arctic

Back in sight, back in mind

Currents, streams, waves and wind carry marine litter across the seas, and the Arctic is not immune.

Plastic pollution in the Arctic is found on beaches, in the water column, in sea ice, sediments and even in the bodies of Arctic birds and mammals.

Little is currently understood about how plastics travel into and out of Arctic waters, and what risks plastics present to Arctic life and livelihoods.

As the current Chair of the Arctic Council, Iceland is making Arctic plastic pollution and marine litter a priority in the work of the Arctic Council. Five of the Arctic Council's six Working Groups are managing projects that address the issue in some way.

Why are plastics a problem in the Arctic?

Ingestion

Arctic species from cod to fulmars to belugas have been found with elevated volumes of plastic in their stomachs.

Entanglement

Abandoned fishing gear and other plastic litter can trap sealife.

Invasive species

Floating plastic can act as a raft that speeds the travel of invasive species. On Svalbard, non-native barnacles have been found on plastic debris.

Risks to food security

More research is needed on the risks of micro- and nanoplastics in Arctic food sources and marine ecosystems.

Risks to transport

Floating plastic debris can obstruct or damage vessels.

When we speak of plastics, we need to reverse an old saying to ‘back in sight, back in mind’. Plastic pollution is one of the major issues marine environments face today and we need to coordinate our actions to tackle it effectively. We need to address the issue at all levels of our society.

Magnús Jóhannesson, Arctic Council designated Special Coordinator on Plastics and Marine Litter

Where does Arctic plastic litter come from?

Outside the Arctic
Plastics are carried north by currents, waves, and wind
Fisheries and parts thereof
Lost, abandoned or discarded fishing gear
Arctic industry
Shipping and offshore resource exploration, marine tourism and aquaculture
Local activities
Insufficient local waste and wastewater management

Tracking plastic in a bottle

PAME launched a bottle equipped with a GPS transmitter into the Atlantic on 12 September 2019. Called “plastic in a bottle”, the capsule simulates how marine litter and plastics travel far distances into and out of Arctic waters.

Find out where it washed ashore.

Where does plastic in the Arctic go?

Beaches
bottle caps, bags
Sub surface
microplastics
Sediments in shallow water
microplastics
Sea ice
microplastics
Seafloor - coast
fishing nets, textiles, bottles
Seafloor - offshore
textiles, bottles

What's the solution?

Manage waste

Some of the plastic waste in the Arctic comes from small remote communities within the region. Arctic Council projects are providing communities with new tools to better manage plastic pollution and other sources of marine litter.

Monitor waste

Arctic Council Working Groups are monitoring the impact of marine litter and plastic pollution on seabirds. We’re also tracking how plastics move into the Arctic with currents, wind and waves, and developing monitoring guidelines to inform policy-makers.

Prevent waste

Through 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 would reduce litter’s negative impact on the region's ecosystem and potentially serve as a blueprint for the rest of the world’s oceans.

See how the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Working Group is using seabirds to monitor plastic in the Arctic.

This video was produced with the support of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Arctic Council plastic projects

Региональный план действий по морскому мусору
The Regional Action Plan will address both sea and land-based activities, focusing on Arctic-specific marine litter sources and pathways that will play an important role in demonstrating Arctic States...
Overview
Plastic litter on an Arctic coast. Photo: iStock/sodar99
Arctic Marine Microplastics and Litter
AMAP is developing a monitoring plan for microplastics and litter in Arctic waters.
Overview

The first Arctic-wide study on the impacts of plastic pollution

Marine litter in the Arctic impacts not just wildlife, but also public health and safety and socioeconomic wellbeing.

The Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group has assessed the state of knowledge on marine litter around the Arctic.

The study improves our understanding of marine litter in the Arctic and its effects; enhances international cooperation to reduce negative impacts and will help prevent and reduce marine litter pollution in the Arctic.

Plastics in the news

Arctic Council advances its marine stewardship role

Starting on Tuesday, 29 September, policy makers, Indigenous peoples and marine experts from the Arctic States and the Arctic Council’s Observers will gather online for a...
24 Sep 2020
Dunlin with plastic exposure on the tundra (photo credit: Maria Gavrilo)

“There is very little information about the impacts of plastics on shorebirds”

Interview with Dr Scott Flemming, 2020-2021 CAFF-IASC Fellow with the Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative
28 May 2020

Action on plastic: On track with the regional action plan for the Arctic

In October 2019, the Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative and the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute co-hosted a workshop on Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean wi...
22 Apr 2020
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The first international symposium on plastics in the Arctic

In March 2021, scientists from around the Arctic and the world will come together for the first time to address the problem of plastic litter in the Arctic.

Some of the questions they’ll address:

  • Where does waste come from?
  • What are the management challenges?
  • How do we study and monitor plastic pollution?
  • What's the impact on wildlife and people?
  • What are the best practices on pollution mitigation from around the world?
  • How can we work together to reduce plastic pollution in the Arctic?

Find out more

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Arctic sources map adapted from PAME. Plastic locations diagram adapted from GRID-Arendal / GEO-GRAPHICS 2018 & GRID-Arendal (Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni). Photos: 5gyres / Oregon State University; iStock