Plastic in the Arctic: work in progress

In brief:

Although the first plastic material was created in 1907, scientists were not concerned about plastic pollution until the 1960s. Around 2010, concern grew to alarm. Now the scientific interest in how plastic affects the environment is rising – and the Arctic is no exception.

You might think the Arctic is remote enough to be safe from pollution. But we now know that plastic waste is a widespread challenge even in this region. For example, Arctic sea ice may be an accumulation zone for microplastics – small fragments of plastic – especially the smallest bits under 1 mm.

Growing interest in plastic in the Arctic

The Norwegian Polar Institute is joining forces with national and international partners to gain knowledge about this issue. Several collaborations have already been established and more are expected thanks to the new Fram Centre Flagship “Plastic in the Arctic”.

Rolling up our sleeves

The unexpected findings in arctic sea ice highlight the urgency of studying small microplastics. A new non-invasive method of sampling and extraction of microplastics from the stomach contents of birds is currently being tested at the Fram Centre. Birds are given water to make them regurgitate, and microplastics down to 20 µm are extracted. This provides valuable data on interactions between plastics and biota.

One big issue in the Arctic is the lack of wastewater treatment plants. In most places, untreated wastewater is discharged directly into the environment. However, in Ny-Ålesund, a treatment plant has now been installed and scientists from IVL-Swedish Environmental Research Institute, Aarhus University and the Norwegian Polar Institute are currently investigating contents of anthropogenic microlitter in wastewater itself, in Kongsfjorden outside Ny-Ålesund, and in other parts of the Arctic.


Alongside its scientific research, the Norwegian Polar Institute has also been involved in a workshop organised by Wageningen Economic Research and SALT, a consultancy firm focused on coastal issues. The Deep Dive workshop sorted, weighed and analysed plastics collected from beaches in Svalbard. Each year, tonnes of plastic litter are collected from Svalbard beaches thanks to a collaboration between scientists, cruise operators, tourists and the Governor of Svalbard.

Through these projects, we hope to raise awareness of stakeholders, companies and society and inspire them to work on solutions to reduce plastic pollution.



A trash pile collected on Svalbard beaches analysed during the Deep Dive workshop in Longyearbyen. Photo: France Collard / Norwegian Polar Institute.


France Collard, Ingeborg Hallanger and Geir W Gabrielsen // Norwegian Polar Institute

Jakob Strand and Lis Bach // Aarhus University

Kerstin Magnusson, Maria Granberg and Lisa Winberg von Friesen// IVL-Swedish Environmental Research Institute