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Whatever it takes

The issue of marine litter may be approached in a number of ways. The widest recognition is usually given to initiatives focusing on prevention, such as raising the awareness of dangers involved in excessive use of plastic or searching for environmentally-friendly alternatives. There is also much talk about improving existing systems of waste management and disposal (or implementing such systems where none exist1It’s estimated that two billion people have no access to proper waste management. That’s a quarter of the world’s population who have no other option but to throw their waste, including plastic, outside their door or in a nearby river.) and imposing appropriate legal measures to force changes among the most avid enthusiasts of the status quo. By targeting the sources of the problem, such solutions may eventually deal a fatal blow to the plastic monster, or permanently limit the amount of waste ending up in our oceans. We must, however, remember that implementing them on a wider scale is often complicated and time-consuming, because they interfere with the sphere of politics and business, where the well-being of the planet is seldom considered a priority. And the clock is ticking.

Sval & Bard – a light-hearted take on prevention.
The above episode deals with the issue of proper waste disposal in Svalbard.

Initiatives like Sørkapp Marine Litter Cleanup exemplify a different strategy (for more details on the aims of the project click here). Even though removing marine debris accumulated along the shoreline does little to eliminate the ultimate cause of the problem, it does have an instant, positive impact on the ecosystem, as it minimizes the immediate risk posed by plastic waste to local wildlife. And the risk is serious, even on remote Arctic beaches, where the amount of litter is sadly on the rise. If you’re curious how it gets there and why it’s so difficult to remove, click here.

The once-pristine Arctic wilderness
© Svalbard Intertidal Project 2018

Although plastic litter is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when we think of danger, close encounters between litter and wildlife frequently end in tragedy. The reason behind it is that the natural instinct followed by animals is still awaiting a critical update introducing necessary plastic-related adjustments.

In Svalbard, for much of the year, finding enough to eat is a considerable challenge, especially now when the food situation is further complicated by far-reaching climate changes. Let’s take, for instance, reindeer. Even though, in normal circumstances, it’s the Arctic tundra that serves as their larder, they’re becoming regular visitors to local beaches, where – desperate for a few extra calories – they resort to eating seaweed.2More information about reindeer and their newly acquired taste for seaweed can be found in this article. It is not unusual, however, for seaweed to be served in tangles of discarded fishing net, and these may prove lethal to animals which get down to their meal wearing a branching crown of antlers.

A trip to the beach has cost this reindeer its life
© Svalbard Intertidal Project 2018

For a typical reindeer, getting tangled up in a fishing net is much easier than getting untangled, especially when we take into account how durable these things are. As a result, a good few reindeer remain on the beaches, unable to move, where they starve to death or become easy prey for predators, because polar bears and Arctic foxes have already realised that regular inspections of the coast may bring substantial benefits. Are they aware that beach litter is potentially dangerous for them as well? Probably not.

A polar bear inspecting a littered beach
© Ilja Leo Lang, Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO)

Fishing nets and other plastic waste attract not only mammals but also a whole range of bird species. In some cases they are drawn to the colour, which clearly stands out against the background. More often, however, the beacon they follow is the scent given off by algae, which the litter gets covered with while drifting in the sea. Either way, it is birds that most frequently fall victim to plastic waste washed ashore by the waves. And it’s not only through entanglement, but also because plastic can quite easily be mistaken for food and, as such, is an increasingly common ingredient of bird’s diet.

Examples of articles dealing with the problem of plastic ingestion by birds
Collated by Barbara Jóźwiak, forScience Foundation

Once ingested, plastic fragments are hard to excrete and impossible to digest. Even if they do not result in acute bowel blockage, they do over time accumulate in the stomach, taking up space meant for actual food. As a result, despite having full bellies, birds do not receive enough nutrients to survive. The problem is especially serious in the case of bird chicks, which – fed plastic by their unsuspecting parents – often starve to death before they even leave the nest. Those which survive are sometimes too weak (and, in extreme cases, too weighed down!) to fly.

It’s pretty obvious what sealed the fate of this youngster
© Chris Jordan

Even if global plastic production came to a grinding halt this very instant and if, from now on, not a single more piece of it ever entered our oceans, we would still have to do something about the tens of millions of tons of plastic waste that have ended up in there over the last few dozen years.

When looking at old bits of plastic falling apart in our hands, we may be tempted to assume that, sooner or later, the problem of marine litter will sort itself out whether we do something about it or not. The thing is that plastic degrades differently than a leftover carrot, broken wooden stool or, ultimately, our own mortal shell. In other words, instead of breaking down into simple organic elements (biodegradation) it merely breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. Even microscopic particles of plastic, however, are still plastic, and although they are hard to get tangled up in, or even see, they do cause a whole range of new problems. Microplastic is, after all, a lot easier to swallow than, for example, a bottle cap, which means that it gets ingested by even the smallest organisms, such as plankton, which is – in turn – staple food for hundreds of other species.

These seagulls look radiant but chances are high that their stomachs contain plastic.
Some of it they pick themselves and some is hidden inside fish and birds they hunt.
© Antoine Kies

Why should that be worrying? Plastic leaks toxins and even though their impact on living creatures has not yet been thoroughly studies, the very definition of a toxin does not give much ground for optimism. What scientists have found out so far is that the substances accumulate in tissues and organs, and their concentration increases further up the food chain. Toxins from plastic disrupt hormonal activity, affecting many vital functions of an organism, such as growth, metabolism and reproduction. If you’re still unsure whether that’s reason enough to care, have a look at where you are in the food chain.

Beach litter on its way to becoming microplastic
© Svalbard Intertidal Project 2018

Due to conditions existing in the Arctic, plastic waste scattered on its shores quickly becomes brittle, as a result of which the process of degradation progresses more rapidly. In order to effectively protect local wildlife against the negative impact of beach litter, we must remove it while we still can, which is to say, before it turns into plastic confetti. And that, among others, is exactly what we’re planning to do along 23 kilometres of a beach, lining the southernmost tip of Spitsbergen.

We’re setting off for the Arctic in two days and, in just over a month, we’ll be back with hot news from the front and plenty of photographs to share with you. In the meantime, we recommend that you watch a documentary called Drowning in Plastic, which further explores the issues raised in this post. Be warned, it does not make for an easy watch, but – apart from shocking images and horrifying statistics – the film shows that the battle with plastic has not been lost yet and that doing our bit in the struggle is worth whatever it takes.