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Summer holiday = litter season?

The summer holidays are here, and many of us will be enjoying the sunny side of life at the seaside. However, not only clean beaches and clear water awaits us. There is also cigarette stubs, fishing gear, the popular Norwegian disposable barbecues, bottles, cans and plastic litter.

Litter accumulating in the oceans

6.4 million tons of litter are disposed into the oceans every year. The amount of litter in Norwegian waters is estimated to be 36,000 tons per year! Of this, 15% is washed ashore, 70% is sinking down to the ground and 15% continues to float around,  heaping up in the sea (Source: UNEP).

Serious consequences

What spoils our holiday feeling can have more serious consequences than just the ugly scenery. Marine litter has become a growing and complex environmental problem. The litter floating in the oceans is a death trap for fish and marine animals. Conservative estimates assume that about 100,000 whales, seals and other marine mammals die each year as consequence of being entangled in ropes and nets.

Plastic litter is such a big problem because it takes a long time to decompose. When plastic decomposes, it turns into millions of small bits and pieces that are impossible to clear up. In the end, the fragments will be taken up by – and thus causing harm to – organisms living in and at the water. Seabirds can for example mistake plastic fragments for food, and eat it.

Plastic litter also in the High North

WWF data show that as much as one million seabirds die each year because of plastic accumulating in their intestines. The litter that the birds consume has no nutrients and can cause strangulation, digestion problems, inner damages and poisoning.

These issues are not limited to the Mediterranean or the Asian coastline, but have also reached the coastal zones further north, such as Norway and Svalbard. Norwegian scientists have found plastic litter in the stomachs of Arctic fulmar and other seabirds.

Plastic can also bind other environmental pollutants and thus further damage costal ecosystems. So far, we do not know to what degree these substances may harm human health through  the consumption of fish and seafood.

The EU-project «CleanSea»

In order to solve this problem, the EU-project «CleanSea» was launched in January 2013. The project shall investigate marine littering, especially within the seas around Europe, to gain more insight and find solutions. «CleanSea» partners (amongst them NILU) come from different countries with diverse expertise and will evaluate the challenges of marine litter related to both, economy, society and environment.

NILU’s role in the project

The project manager for NILU, Dorte Herzke, explains that NILU’s role in «CleanSea» is to collect data from litter findings in the North Atlantic, examine the stomach contents of seabirds such as Artic fulmars, carry out chemical analysis of plastic and tissue samples, and identify the chemical composition of plastic found in birds.

More specifically, NILU will contribute to the project with analytical chemistry in target and non-target screenings, toxicology, evaluation of plastic litter and dissemination.

What can we do?

While scientists are busy with their research there is still a number of things you and I can do to improve the situation:

  1. Use as little plastic as possible in your daily life
  2. Don’t throw plastic garbage into the sea or nature
  3. Separate litter – recycle
  4. Take litter you find in the nature with you and recycle it

Every year, the Ocean Conservancy arranges the International Coastal Cleanup, where volunteers all over the world spend the day picking up litter and cleaning beaches where they live: http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/international-coastal-cleanup/

The problems around marine litter can’t be solved overnight. But if each of us does a little, every day, the result will be a much better nature experience – for ourselves and for others.

Figur som viser hvor lenge forskjellig type søppel varer i havet.
How long will things you throw in the ocean last? Illustration: Sigrid Skoglund.