Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean: October 2019 Workshop Summary & Recommendations

| April 2020

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October 2019 Workshop on Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean

The Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative and the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute co-hosted a workshop with the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council at Harvard Kennedy School entitled, Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean. The event convened global thought leaders, diverse stakeholders, and subject matter experts to begin developing a framework for tackling Arctic marine plastic pollution as one of the focus areas for the Icelandic Chairmanship.


Is Arctic marine plastic pollution a problem?

The workshop revealed the massive scale of plastic consumption that exists, with approximately 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic being cumulatively produced as of 2017. There has been rapid growth in plastic production in recent years, with half of all plastic having been produced in just the last 13 years, and 34 billion metric tons of plastic expected to be produced by 2050. Litter is found across the Arctic marine environment including shoreline, sea ice, sea surface and subsurface waters, water column, seafloor and sediments, and in the food chain. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean worldwide every year, though only 1% of it has been accounted for. This raises the question, where is all the plastic in the ocean?

Different categories of plastic debris include: macroplastics, mesoplastics, microplastics, and nanoplastics. These different types of debris present challenges to a comprehensive understanding of the plastic pollution issue because they disperse differently in the environment and in some cases have completely different trajectories, requiring different methodologies to study them effectively.

A lack of consensus on definitions of plastic marine debris categories constitutes a second challenge to consistency across the field, making a common vocabulary and shared definitions beneficial, especially for clarity of comparative research. Despite gaps in knowledge about occurrence, sources, transport, and the spectrum of impacts of plastic in the environment, we know enough that the plastic pollution problem is serious, and that we must seize opportunities to address it.


Where does the plastic come from?

Plastic debris of all sizes comes from sea-based activities, land-based activities, riverine deposition, and through atmospheric transport. Sea-based activities, particularly commercial fishing, generate large quantities of plastic debris in the Arctic marine environment, especially ghost gear (lost or discarded fishing gear). Other known sea-based sources include aquaculture, shipping, the oil and gas sectors, and ocean transport of debris from outside the Arctic. Land-based sources of debris come from tourism, extractive industries, inadequate water treatment plants (particularly microplastics), lack of treatment plants, and poor landfill management. There has also been documentation of atmospheric deposition of small particles across vast distances. Significant inputs of plastic debris enter the Kara and Laptev Seas, which demonstrate the role of rivers as pathways for litter, currently estimated to be about 2 million tons each year.


Research Recommendations

The problem of plastic pollution in the Arctic is sufficiently understood to know it poses a risk to marine ecosystems. However, there are daunting gaps in knowledge of the abundance and distribution of Arctic marine plastic from these different sources. These gaps can make it more challenging to assess how to best target interventions. To fill these gaps there is a need for:

  • development of harmonized protocols and standardization of data to measure trends over time in a consistent way that is conducive to data sharing
  • consistent monitoring throughout the year to account for seasonal fluctuations
  • establishment of baselines from which to measure progress
  • better data collection from certain parts of the Arctic Ocean region, particularly the Central Arctic Ocean and coastal areas in Siberia, Arctic Alaska, and Canada
  • increased sampling of snow on ice floes to improve estimates of atmospheric transport of litter
  • seafloor sediment monitoring, since plastics of all sizes accumulate there
  • identification of “hot spots”—areas of acute contamination with greatest risk to wildlife and the marine ecosystem
  • improved use of satellite imagery to assess where ice forms and how it moves, thereby providing information about where ice picks up microplastics
  • further initiatives to develop remote sensing for detecting large debris at sea, as well as sensors to detect plastics in the water column that could be installed opportunistically on vessels
  • increased collaboration between Arctic communities and scientists in community monitoring of plastic pollution

All those involved—scientists, politicians, industry leaders, communities, indigenous peoples, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders—should co-create solutions to the Arctic marine plastic pollution problem within the context most appropriate for the given circumstances. Prioritizing actions that can inform understanding about significant sources of plastic pollution emissions, and allow for monitoring and assessment of policy interventions, may prove the most impactful given limited resources.


Learning from Other Regional Plans

The OSPAR Regional Action Plan and the Caribbean Regional Action Plan offer models from which a Regional Action Plan for the Arctic can benefit.

The OSPAR Plan combines national actions, recommendations, and 32 collective actions. Its success derives from relatively good data on pollution sources and a commitment to measuring the effects of interventions, which promotes engagement with sectors that are contributing to pollution issues.

Implementation of the Caribbean Plan demonstrates that such plans are only as effective as local implementation capability and that communities must have buy-in from the beginning. Those developing the regional plan must communicate clearly with affected communities about the relevance of the marine plastic pollution problem and seek their engagement in building solutions.

An Arctic Regional Action Plan to address plastic pollution should draw from the harmonized approach for marine litter monitoring modeled by OSPAR; focusing on science that can establish a baseline of current plastic pollution, and a foundation for collaborative science to enable effective plastic pollution monitoring and intervention assessment going forward. Like the Caribbean Plan, local knowledge must be integrated and communities should be recognized as integral parts of the intervention solution. Recognizing that plastic pollution is a major transboundary concern within the region, a plan should endeavor to couple unique approaches that work locally with collaborative monitoring and collective action.


Innovation and Working with Industry

As with many challenges, prevention is key. It is significantly easier and more cost-effective to prevent plastic from entering the environment than it is to clean it up. Partnering with industry and innovators to prevent plastic from polluting the environment, to encourage the reuse of already existing plastic materials, to reduce raw plastic consumption, and to ensure better recyclability of new plastics products could begin to stem the flow of plastics into the environment. At the October workshop presenters highlighted several promising partnerships and technologies toward that goal.

The Icelandic Recycling Fund (IRF) has found success in using financial incentives to increase the proper disposal of waste, including the explicit funding of collection and recycling. The incentive is funded through a recycling fee on products for producers and importers, which is a model that could be scaled up or applied to other places in the Arctic. Through the IRF partnership with the fishing industry, fishermen can return gear (such as nets and ropes) to waste collection points without paying a fee. IRF then works with technology partners to recycle the gear they collect. In order to build engagement from fishermen, IRF has found it beneficial to communicate the risks that plastic pollution poses to the health of fisheries upon which their livelihoods depend. This collaboration is a promising public/private partnership addressing one of the significant sources of sea-based plastic pollution in the Arctic.

Plastix, a Danish company, uses a circular economy model through increasing the recyclability of plastic-based products like fishing nets. Plastix has overcome the challenge of recycling products that contain different polymers through a process that breaks the products down into raw materials that can be turned into new products. This is an example of a method that helps to keep manufactured plastics in the value chain and out of the waste stream.

Cruise industry partnerships with local governments can leverage each other’s strengths. For example, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) has established a Clean Seas Project, which focuses on dramatically reducing single-use plastics onboard expedition cruise vessels, while educating and motivating passengers and crew to better understand the negative impacts of plastic pollution on the sensitive Arctic marine environment. AECO brings tourists to the Svalbard area who contribute to debris removal efforts, while the Svalbard government retrieves the aggregated waste that is collected so the cruise ship does not incur costs of disposal. This is an example of how opportunistic trips to the Arctic could be systematically leveraged to assist in debris recovery and removal, while addressing a potential source for marine pollution through education and intentional reduction of single-use plastics consumption.

Rhizoform, LLC is a bio-materials startup company that has developed a mycelium-based packaging product substituts for polystyrene to insulate shipments of fish, as well to insulate houses. This, and other bio-based materials, offer fully biodegradable alternatives to plastic that could both decrease the demand for new plastic as well as limit the amount of plastic that Arctic communities have to process through waste management facilities or as waste to be retrieved from the environment.

Drawing on innovators and industry to be part of the solution to the plastic pollution problem offers a valuable multi-sector approach.


Policy Recommendations

The Arctic region is too diverse for a single set of solutions to the marine plastic pollution problem. The Arctic Regional Action Plan should allow for subregional and local efforts and communications campaigns tailored to specific needs and capabilities. Local communities must co-develop these efforts with incorporation of indigenous knowledge where relevant. A Hackathon model could be used to gather interested community members with partners to innovate and problem solve collectively. Increased investment in innovative solutions that comie from Arctic residents to address the reduction, reuse, recycling, and recovery of plastics could provide opportunities for regional leadership on this issue.

Keeping the importance of the local perspective in mind, the Arctic Regional Action Plan can usefully employ the following strategies:

  • promote awareness and understanding of the plastic pollution issue through targeted communication and education efforts to increase community engagement and solutions co-creation
  • convene industry to educate about economic and environmental threats from plastic pollution and to generate reasonable and realistic practices for plastic pollution mitigation
  • work with industry to develop and promote guidelines that reduce plastic waste and address appropriate disposal, recycling, and reuse of plastic materials
  • based on those guidelines, implement measures to reduce plastic pollution from ships in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas, particularly lost and abandoned gear from fishing vessels and plastic waste from transport and tourist vessels
  • share information about promising projects already happening in the Arctic region to enable those efforts to be scaled up
  • provide incentives for cross-sector collaboration to promote synergy between different actors addressing the plastic pollution problem
  • encourage more producer responsibility to account for management of environmental costs associated with a product throughout its life cycle, and decrease the use of plastics that cannot be recycled
  • promote financial incentives to identify alternative packaging products, by using industry challenges, similar to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge
  • identify and fund research priorities to identify major contributors to the waste stream and to measure impact of reduction strategies
  • enable researchers to coordinate, share data, and learn from each other
  • work with the Arctic Economic Council to develop an innovation fund and to encourage circular economy model development from production of raw materials to reclamation and reintegration of spent materials into new products.


October 2019 Workshop Participants



Contents in the full publication:

Appendix 1: Plastic Pollution Case Studies

From the Globe 

  • Lessons Learned Developing a Regional Action Plan to Reduce Plastic Pollution; 
    Caribbean Environment Program Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter (RAPMaLi)
  • A Reusable Solution to Reducing Plastic Packaging Waste; 
    Algramo— A Private Sector Solution for a Circular Economy

From the Arctic 

  • Managing Plastic Waste from Fisheries; 
    The Icelandic Recycling Fund
  • Creating a Model for more Sustainable Arctic Tourism; 
    AECO Clean Seas Program
  • Innovation in Biomaterial Alternatives to Plastic; 
    Dr. Philippe Amstislavski, Rhizoform, LLC and University of Alaska Anchorage


Appendix 2: Full Event Summary

  • Introduction
  • Workshop Summary
  • Opening Remarks

Issue overview: What is the status of plastic pollution in the Arctic?

Thematic Session 1: Strategies in Monitoring: How is plastic pollution 
being tracked and what are the current gaps in knowledge?

Thematic Session 2: Mitigation Efforts at the Global Level: What are promising 
case studies of plastic pollution mitigation globally that may be able to inform the strategy for the Regional Action Plan?

Thematic Session 3: Efforts in the Arctic that can be replicated or scaled up: 
What are promising case studies of plastic pollution mitigation in the Arctic 
that may be able to inform the strategy for the regional action plan? 
How can these Arctic success stories be scaled up or replicated?

Thematic Session 4: Innovations and a path forward to Reykjavik: What are 
science, technology and industry innovations that may be able to help us 
address the challenge of plastic pollution? What solutions still need to be 
developed? How could innovation be spurred through the regional action plan?

Closing Session: What Has Been Learned?


Appendix 3: Thanks & Acknowledgements

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Balton, David, Brittany Janis, Halla Hrund Logadóttir, Marisol Maddox and Fran Ulmer. “Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean: October 2019 Workshop Summary & Recommendations.” , April 2020.

The Authors

David Balton

Marisol Maddox