5: What are the consequences?
Plastic litter of the sea is one of our most serious environmental problems, and it is increasing over time. As pointed out above, the problem is partly visual, something that touches on, for example, tourism negatively. On the one hand, there is a major problem with lost fishing gear, for example so-called “ghost nets”, which continue to fish and contribute to increased pressure on fish stocks. Under the Directorate of Fisheries’ annual clean-up in 2017, 10 tonnes of dead fish were found in the fishing gear caps that had been retrieved from the sea during the operation.
Another problem is, as mentioned, that fish, birds, turtles, seals and other animals get stuck in plastic or that they ingest it. Less than two years ago, researchers at Sotra outside Bergen found a sick goose beak whale with 30 plastic bags and large amounts of microplastic in its stomach . This had to be killed. We also have studies at Svalbard where it has been found that seabirds also have plastic in their stomachs. In addition, plastic and microplastics have been found along the entire Norwegian coast in mussels, which lie on the bottom and filter the seawater.
Plastic has become part of the sea. In all stages of the food chain, plastic and microplastics have been found. When plastic is broken down to micro and nano sizes, the pollution is less visible to the naked eye, but we do not have an overview of the overall impact picture or how it affects us humans. What we still know now is that humans also have microplastics in their bodies. Austrian researchers recently found that plastic has found its way into our stomachs. The extent to which humans can become ill from this is an important area of research.
6: What can happen to the plastic problem?
Population growth and economic development will continue, and this will result in higher demand for plastic products. Thus, it is likely that the amount of plastic that accumulates in the sea will increase – unless something drastic is done.
The measure that will pay the absolute most is to limit the supply of plastic waste from land to sea. There are a number of initiatives to collect plastic at sea, but the effect of these measures is unprecedented. Through international agreements, it is forbidden to dump waste from ships.
The UN’s sustainability goal number 14 aims at a better environmental condition in the Arctic Ocean. Sub-goal 14.1 is about reducing pollution, especially from land-based sources by 2025. Furthermore, the UN’s environmental assembly has since 2014 worked with the plastics problem, and in 2017 it adopted a zero vision for plastics in the sea and emphasized, among other things, better waste management. Getting there will require considerable work. The EU has recently adopted a plastics strategy that will reduce the use of plastics and improve waste management through a so-called circular economy. For a number of years, China has been a major importer of plastic waste from Western countries for waste management and recycling. This scheme is now being phased out , something that will require greater capacity for handling plastic waste in many other countries.
Also in the context of development assistance , there is now great attention to plastic pollution of the sea, and the Norwegian government has pledged NOK 1.6 billion over the next four years for development assistance to combat the plastics problem.
7: What do we do in Norway?
According to indexdotcom, Norway has large sea areas (more than five gongar land area) with some significant business activity. The ocean currents along the Norwegian coast go north and can cause pollution from the continent.
We have a waste management system that catches a lot of plastic rubbish. For the visible rubbish in the beach zone, there are separate clean-up campaigns. Strandryddeveka 2018 had around 90,000 participants. There are return schemes for fishing trips and plastic waste. In addition, as mentioned, the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries searches annually for lost travel gear. The biggest source of plastic pollution in Norway is nevertheless – perhaps surprisingly – wear of car tires.
8: Increased awareness and better technology
Pollution of the oceans is a significant global environmental problem. Pollution in the form of rubbish, and especially plastic rubbish, is one of the most extensive of these problems. The core is that production and consumption of plastic is increasing at the same time as plastic is difficult to break down in nature. A large part of the plastic is used in disposable products, and when these are not captured in a well-functioning waste management system, they end up in nature and in the sea.
From a global perspective, the most important measure is that good arrangements must be put in place for waste management and collection of plastics where such are lacking. This is what is crucial for stopping the supply of plastic to the sea.
The issues surrounding plastic waste and marine pollution have received increasing attention in recent years, but while we are waiting for a number of countries to have better waste management, technology has been developed to collect plastic on the sea surface and plastic production has slowed down considerably, plastic has already in the sea, broken down into smaller and smaller particles. The micro- and nanoplastics are almost a part of the marine ecosystem. But unlike other elements in this ecosystem, it takes hundreds of years to break down, and in the meantime it will do great damage to nature, animals and possibly us humans.