Journal Article - Polar Record

Managing Plastic Pollution in the Arctic Ocean: An Integrated Quantitative Flux Estimate and Policy Study

| Nov. 10, 2023


Plastic pollution in the Arctic marine system is sparsely quantified, and few enforceable policies are in place to ameliorate the issue. With an inflow-outflow budget for the Arctic Ocean, we identify gateways through which plastic enters and exits the Arctic marine system. While estimating the flux of plastic through rivers, sea ice, and ocean, we also quantify marine plastic pollution from Arctic shipping and fishing. Plastic fluxes are calculated using horizontal volume fluxes of water and ice and combining them with plastic waste concentration data; flux from fishing and shipping is generated through combining waste estimates with estimated ship traffic. We estimate that fishing and shipping contribute 105 tonnes of plastic flux per annum, compared to 10−1 tonnes per annum from river inflow. The ocean has a far smaller net outflow, dwarfed by that of ice, at 10−8 to 10−7 and 10−5 to 10−3 tonnes per annum, respectively. We examine how a suite of proposed policy interventions would quantitatively change those concentrations, and how the current governance environment makes each feasible; we find interventions targeting vessel traffic most effective. These interventions include a prohibition on the use of certain plastics in fishing as well as a Polar Code permitting scheme.

Key Takeaways

  • Fishing and other shipping represent the largest contributors of plastic pollution to the Arctic marine system, contributing an estimated 105 tonnes per annum. Riverine plastic pollution entering the Arctic Ocean is relatively small compared to rivers in other more densely populated regions of the world.
  • Various international treatiesalready seek to regulate pollution within the marine environment, many of which apply to the disposal or release of plastics in the ocean. These treaties include the London Convention and Protocol, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, the International Maritime Organization’s MARPOL Annex V, and the Polar Code. The Arctic Council, the primary intergovernmental forum within the Arctic, also published a non-binding regional action plan on marine litter in 2021.

  • Mechanisms to combat marine plastic pollution under existing international treaties could be implemented or enforced more effectively on a regional level. Such mechanisms could address the problem across national legal structures (in both Arctic and non-Arctic states) and have a degree of enforceability lacking in such good-faith action plans as that of the Arctic Council.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Dewey, Sarah and Sarah Mackie. Managing Plastic Pollution in the Arctic Ocean: An Integrated Quantitative Flux Estimate and Policy Study.” Polar Record, (November 10, 2023) .