Plastic Waste in the Arctic: Northern Threat, Global Solutions?

A display of microplastics at Polaria, Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The danger posed by plastic waste has begun to gather a high level of international attention in the wake of alarming data about plastic products, many of which are ‘single use’ items, damaging the environment, including the world’s oceans, and presenting a health risk to both humans and wildlife. Currently, only about nine percent of plastics are recycled, with the remainder adding to the waste build-up in many parts of the world. It has been estimated that eight million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year, mostly from land-based sources and transported by rivers.

The Arctic Ocean, despite its remoteness, has proven not to be an exception to this growing crisis. Not only have regular castoff plastic items found their way into the region, but also ‘microplastics’ which are much more difficult to detect and remove are present. Moreover, much of the plastic found in the Arctic did not originate in the region, but rather was transported there via ocean currents from the south.

Scientific analyses released in 2018 suggested that in some parts of the Arctic Ocean, over twelve thousand particles of microplastics could be found in a single litre of sea ice. A similar study by UiT: The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, released earlier this year found evidence of microplastic contamination in remote waters off of north-eastern Greenland as well as within two local varieties of fish with widely different eating habits, namely the polar cod and a bottom-feeding species known as the bigeye sculpin. So not only is the Arctic not immune from the scourge of plastic waste being generated elsewhere, the region is becoming a way-stop for plastics dumped in the ocean and carried north.

The threat of plastic waste to delicate ecosystems, including the Arctic, has prompted numerous countries to implement campaigns to discourage and eventually eliminate single use plastics in the coming years. For example, the Justin Trudeau government in Canada announced that the country would attempt to ban all such plastics by 2021, and in Iceland, single use plastic bags are to be eliminated by January of that year. The Finnish Environment Ministry released a ‘roadmap’ for the reduction of plastics in October last year, which included calls for greater education about the danger of plastic waste, support for alternative products, and more effective recycling and reusing practices. Norway already has an aggressive plastic recycling program in place, and according to 2018 figures, 97% of the country’s plastic beverage bottles are now recycled.

The government of the United States, by contrast, has appeared to be significantly less interested in addressing the single use plastic issue in a rapid fashion, as illustrated during a UN conference in Nairobi on the issue, where the US delegation pushed for a final text from the meeting calling for the significant reduction of single use plastics, rather than an outright ban, by 2030. This followed an unwillingness by the US government to support an Ocean Plastics Charter put forward at last year’s Group of Seven (G7) conference in Charlevoix, Canada. Five of the G7 governments, (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom), agreed to sign on to the pact, but the US and Japan declined.

Washington also found itself playing the role of spoiler after it declined in May this year to join with over 180 other governments in supporting global-level restrictions on plastic waste transport over borders, in the form of an addendum to the 1992 Basel Convention [pdf], originally drafted to reduce [pdf] the international transfer of hazardous wastes, especially to developing regions. Adding plastic waste to the list of materials covered by the Basel Convention was originally proposed by the government of Norway in recognition of the threat from plastics to marine ecosystems and pressures placed on developing countries to accept such waste, especially in light of recent new laws regarding waste imports implemented by China.

As part of China’s ongoing environmental reforms, the country has been seeking to better control its plastic recycling policies by addressing its domestic stockpiles and beginning to interdict shipments of plastic waste from other countries, including the United States. Following its announcement in July 2017, a Chinese government policy, somewhat grandiosely named ‘National Sword’ [In Chinese] (guomen lijian 国门利剑), brought an end to decades of importing plastic and other recyclable waste for processing and repurposing within China.

Beijing’s unhappiness with being the destination point for so much of the word’s castoff waste for recycling had been building for several years before the current restrictions, as evidenced by the February 2013 ‘Green Fence’ (lüse weilan 绿色围栏) initiative which sought to restrict the influx of poor quality, unclean and unsorted recyclable waste from foreign sources. In addition to these rules being set up to improve China’s own domestic recycling needs and encourage better recycling habits in the country, environmental and sustainable development concerns also prompted the bans.

[Photo by Pixabay]
In September 2017, Beijing informed the World Trade Organisation of its intention intending to halt imports on environmental and health grounds of twenty-four types of recyclable products, including types of plastic waste. This announcement created shockwaves in North America and Europe, forcing them to find alternative options for handling their plastic recyclables. By the end of 2018, plastic exports to China had fallen 99.1% compared with the previous year, and many exporting countries in the West are now hurriedly weighing a variety of policy choices to handle their growing plastic waste backlogs. Unfortunately, in the case of the United States, one option for many municipalities has been simply to avoid recycling altogether in favour of dumping and burning.

China is hardly alone in rethinking its plastic waste import policies, as this month a container vessel filled with sixty-nine shipping containers of garbage arrived at Tsawwassen terminal in British Columbia from the Philippines, ending a six-year diplomatic incident between Ottawa and Manila after it was discovered that the garbage, which had been labelled as plastic waste, was contaminated with other waste products when it was shipped to the Philippines during 2013-4, prompting an angry reaction from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and a downgrading of diplomatic relations with Canada.

Other Asian states which had previously accepted foreign plastic waste, including India, Malaysia and Vietnam, are also implementing controls on future imports. This has meant that many Western countries which have long relied on developing states to quickly and cheaply take in plastic waste, are now having to look closer to home for solutions.

With the Arctic facing a variety of pressing climate change challenges, including recent reports of drastic changes to Arctic coastlines caused by melting permafrost, having the potential to affect the environment and human activity well beyond the confines of the circumpolar north, the issue of local plastic contamination has now moved away from being a fringe issue to one which is standing alongside other threats to the Arctic which are in need of swift resolution.

Addendum: It has recently been announced that the Government of Iceland, in collaboration with the Nordic Council of Ministers, will be hosting an International Symposium on Plastics in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Region in April 2020 at Harpa in Reykjavík, in association with Iceland’s Chair of the Arctic Council which began this year.