“Unfortunately, there are very few studies on the effects of the plastic on marine organisms in the Arctic,” Bergmann explains. “But there is evidence that the consequences there are similar to those in better-studied regions: in the Arctic, too, many animals – polar bears, seals, reindeer and seabirds – become entangled in plastic and die. In the Arctic, too, unintentionally ingested microplastic likely leads to reduced growth and reproduction, to physiological stress and inflammations in the tissues of marine animals, and even runs in the blood of humans.”
The available data on potential feedback effects between plastic debris and climate change is particularly thin. “Here, there is an urgent need for further research,” says the AWI expert. “Initial studies indicate that trapped microplastic changes the characteristics of sea ice and snow.” For example, dark particles could mean the ice absorbs more sunlight and therefore melts more rapidly. In turn, due to what is known as ice-albedo feedback this can intensify global warming. Moreover, plastic particles in the atmosphere provide condensation nuclei for clouds and rain, which means they could influence the weather and, in the long term, the climate. And last but not least, throughout their lifecycle, plastics are currently responsible for 4.5 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Our review shows that the levels of plastic pollution in the Arctic match those of other regions around the world. This concurs with model simulations that predict an additional accumulation zone in the Arctic,” says Bergmann. “But the consequences might be even more serious. As climate change progresses, the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the world. Consequently, the plastic flood is hitting ecosystems that are already seriously strained. The resolution for a global plastic treaty, passed at the UN Environment Assembly this February, is an important first step. In the course of the negotiations over the next two years, effective, legally binding measures must be adopted including reduction targets in plastic production. In this regard, the European countries including Germany must cut their plastic output, just as the rich Arctic States have to reduce pollution from local sources and improve the often virtually non-existent waste and wastewater management in their communities. In addition, more regulation and controls are called for – with regard to plastic debris from international shipping, and fisheries.”