Most people think of the arctic as clean and pristine, untouched by humans and their rubbish clearance. Relatively few people call the arctic region home. It’s so remote, in fact, that few people even travel there. There’s just sky, ice, and nature as far as the eye can see, right?
CLose your eyes and imagine an uninhabited pristine arctic island. What do you see in that beautiful icy landscape? Mountains and glaciers falling into the sea? The moonlight glistening on the snow covered tundra? The northern lights dancing in the sky? Snowy owls hunting for lemmings? Walruses diving for food? Polar bears fishing?
This is not exactly the scene a team of Dutch scientists from the Wageningen Economic Research (WER) found on an expedition to Jan Mayen island and the Svalbard Archipelago in 2017. When Wouter Jan Strietman came face to face with a group of curious walruses, he also encountered a discouraging landscape full of rubbish clearance.
This rubbish clearance had been carried in on the North Atlantic Drift, a northern extension of the Gulf Stream. When the rubbish hits the arctic regions, it gets trapped in ice, entombing it for long periods of time. This has turned the arctic region of the world into a graveyard for rubbish clearance, a final resting place. This rubbish travels thousands of miles from the southern United states, Canada and Europe.
The journey for all this rubbish can be quite rapid too. According to research conducted by Erik van Sebille, a professor at Imperial College in London, it takes only two years for rubbish clearance to travel from the shores of the UK to hit the arctic! So, if you litter the beaches of Scotland, your rubbish could become lodged in Arctic ice in two short years and then stay there for thousands of years!
As the ice melts, which is happening at an accelerated pace due to global warming, it releases this plastic back into the immediate environment of the arctic. Animals who live there become entangled in it and die. Some arctic animals mistake the rubbish for food, eat it, and die. The ingested rubbish clearance gets magnified as it moves up the food chain. Even we humans ingest this rubbish when we eat cold water fish.
The rubbish clearance discovered on the expedition to Jan Mayen island and the Svalbard Archipelago was mostly plastic. A whopping eight percent of it is thought to be caps off of plastic drinking bottles. The WER scientists also found piles of entangled plastic strapping bands used to tie down boxes of frozen fish on boats. The scientists surmised these were intentionally dumped overboard rather than deposited in the waste removal bins available on ships. Wouter Jan Strietman is currently working with members of the fishing industry to reduce the practice of throwing this type of rubbish overboard.
The WER scientists had two primary objectives in their rubbish clearance surveys of these remote arctic islands. First, they wanted to quantify, as best they could, how much rubbish were on the arctic island beaches compared to other places. Second, they wanted to identify the origin of the plastic they found in order so they could try to prevent these sources of arctic rubbish in the future. In one case, they found a toy plastic vessel which they traced to a free toy in a box of Quaker cornflakes sold in the UK in 1958! They also found items that they identified from Florida, Maine, and Canada.
Here’s what’s so shocking about their rubbish clearance survey. In their home country of the Netherlands, near human population centers where you’d expect high rates of littering, they have found that on a one-hundred meter stretch of beach, the average number of pieces of litter is 395. However, on these remote arctic islands, the average is much higher! For example, in Walrus Bay (Kvalrossbukta) on Jan Mayen island, considered to be one of the most remote islands in the arctic region, they found 501 pieces of rubbish clearance items!
One piece of good news to come out of their rubbish clearance survey was the almost total lack of food packaging on the arctic shores, rubbish that is very common on the shores of the Netherlands. Instead, the rubbish clearance most prevalent at these remote arctic islands was fishing gear: nets, ropes, floats, and the aforementioned strapping bands. The reason this is good news is that outreach to fishing boats, and the fishing industry at large, has the potential to put a significant dent in the total amount of rubbish clearance headed toward these remote arctic islands in the future.
In second place in the marine debris survey, a strong second, were plastic bottles and the aforementioned plastic bottle caps! On their blog, the scientists dubbed these remote arctic islands the “drain hole of the Gulf Stream.” In this case, the arctic drain hole seems to be getting plugged up with plastic! On the Svalbard beaches surveyed, they noted how broken down into tiny pieces the plastic rubbish clearance had become and how much had accumulated. On one beach they found 660 tiny pieces of rubbish clearance! On a comparable beach in The Netherlands, they would expect only 73 pieces!
Unfortunately, in the UK, when rubbish clearance is left on the street or in the alley for the council services to pick up, it often gets strewn far and wide. You can eliminate this problem by using a private rubbish clearance service. Clearabee is the most respected of these private rubbish clearance services in the UK, in part because they divert about ninety percent of all the rubbish they collect from the landfills! Clearabee also has a reputation for offering excellent customer service and they provide proof that they NEVER fly tip as so many other “bargain” rubbish clearance services do in the UK.