Marine Plastic Pollution

In May 2019, community workshops were held at different locations in Northwest Iceland to clean up beaches and raise awareness on ocean plastic pollution. The project was a collaboration of the Icelandic Textile Center and BioPol marine biotechnology company in Skagaströnd and funded by Uppbyggingarsjóður NV and the Icelandic Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources. Workshops were supervised by students of the Icelandic University of the Arts and artists in residence from NES in Skagaströnd and the Icelandic Textile Center.

In connection with the project, we asked scientists at BioPol, Karin Zech and James Kennedy, to answer a few basic questions on plastic waste and ocean pollution. Here's what they told us: 

What is plastic?  

Plastic is material consisting of any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and so can be molded into solid objects. Microplastic is any type of plastic fragment that is less than five millimeters in length. 

Where do plastics in the ocean come from? 

Plastics primarily come from land. They are blown into rivers and sewers which lead to the ocean. People often flush plastic items down the toilet, small items often slip through the filters and end up in the sea.  Plastic can also come from shipping, rubbish thrown overboard and also lost or discarded fishing gear. The composition depends on region, in Iceland, discarded fishing gear makes up a higher proportion due to good waste management on land, low population but large fishing industry. The impacts of plastic in the ocean is poorly understood, especially regarding microplastics. It is known that many animals can become entangled in plastic and can also mistake plastic for food, however, it is not really known if this is causing the decline of any species. Some types of plastic — such as polyvinyl chloride; PVC — can leach chemicals such as additives and plasticiser compounds which can be harmful for animals in the sea.  

How much plastic is in the ocean? 

No one knows! There are some estimates, but it is difficult to do and we are not even sure where all the plastic goes when it enters the ocean i.e. how much floats, how much sinks, how much breaks up, how much ends up buried in sediment, and how much ends up on the beaches. However, we know that the plastic which we find on the beaches is only a small proportion of what is left in the sea. The amount that is in the ocean is probably in the range of tens of millions of tonnes. According to the UN, about 8 million tonnes of plastic waste is dumped in the seas annually. You might hear that “there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050”, this is - well, a load of rubbish 

What is Iceland’s role when it comes to ocean pollution? 

It's all about setting a good example. Maintaining a good waste management system, monitor potential impacts and attempt to address the problem of discarded fishing gear. 

Why is there waste on some beaches and not others? 

Primary this is a result of topography of the beach and predominant wind and current directions. Long, wide, flat beach which faces the wind will gather more than a small beach where things are washed up but washed out again.  Examples for where lots of trash accumulates on the beaches (in the Northwest of Iceland) are in the northeast coast of Skagi, Strandir (bottom of Hrútafjörður to Hólmavik) and the northeast coast of the Westfjords.  

What is plastic waste management?  

Waste management, or lack thereof is one of the major causes of plastic pollution. The ideal situation is to take the waste from the consumer to the dump/incinerator/sorting facility with as little loss possible. Some countries lack any sort of waste collection, so it just dumped in a convenient location, sometimes in rivers as it takes it away out of sight, hence a lot of waste ends up in the environment. 

Where does waste from waste dumps go?  

This depends on the dump. In first world countries with good management, it won´t go anywhere just sit there for hundreds of years, mostly unchanged. In poorly designed waste dumps, this could be blown away by the wind ending up in the natural environment. 

Is it possible to recycle plastic? 

Yes, but some types of plastic are more recyclable than others. Manufactures often don’t make this easy, mixing different types of plastic or even materials in the same product (see Cost is major factor, it is often cheaper to make new plastic as you have to sort the waste plastic and then send it to a recycling plant somewhere. A lot of plastic can only downcycled: becomes less valuable and not as useful as the original material. 

Do we need plastic? 

Yes. Plastic is strong, light and cannot be easily replaced in many products. The world would be a radically different place without it. Plastic packaging in food, especially in fruit and veg is often vindicated. However, the packaging keeps it fresh, increases shelf life and reduces waste, this lowers the carbon footprint of our food. Packaging food and drink in plastic can also reduce carbon emissions due to less fuel needed for transportation. Plastic pollution is a minor problem in comparison to climate change. There are new alternatives being developed, so called bioplastics. These will often need land where food could have been grown thus having a negative environmental impact as we will need to convert land from nature to agriculture. That’s not to say that there isn´t a problem with overpackaging, usually in order to make goods look more attractive, Easter eggs are a good example of this. Single use plastic items in the name of convenience can also be problematic. The microplastics found in many cosmetics and toiletries are unnecessary and usually used to replace sand to lower costs. 

What do people need to know about (plastic) waste that they don’t? 

Everyone should visit their local waste facilities to get an idea of the scale of the amount of waste is produced. A lot of waste is hidden from site, waste that produced during the production of food and non-food products. Think of all the plastic used in the hay bales in the fields around Iceland. The only things you should flush down the toilet are pee, poo and toilet paper, nothing else (don´t flush wet wipes, sanitary products, nappies, dental floss etc.), it will end up in the sea. 

Do Beach Cleanups Make A Real Difference? 

While the ultimate goal is to stop plastics from entering the water in the first place, cleanup projects play an important role. Picking up plastic will still prevent those particular pieces from entangling animals and ending up in the bellies of seabirds or fish. Moreover, the pieces which are picked up can't break up further into micro and nanoplastics which can potentially have their own nasty effects on the environment. Clean up project are also an opportunity to raise awareness of the trash problem among local communities.  


Find more useful info on the subject here: 

Article on where does durable, floating plastic end up: 

Article on ocean gyres, large areas of the ocean where currents circulate around, concentrating any floating objects.