Plastic soup detectives analyse sources of beach litter in West Greenland and find it is of local origin

In November 2019, Wouter Jan Strietman of Wageningen University & Research and his team of researchers visited West Greenland to analyse the sources and pathways of beach litter in the region. They found that, contrary to popular belief, most litter was of local origin and not from afar. The results were published today in a report.

Even though Greenland is remote and almost uninhabited, its beaches are covered in plastic litter

Greenland is a special place: it is a vast country, it is remote and almost uninhabited. Despite its being sparsely populated, its shorelines are littered with plastic waste. This waste poses a direct threat to local communities, animals in the area, shipping safety and tourism. “When we heard about the amounts of plastic litter on its coastline and the need for solutions, we offered our help,” says Wouter Jan Strietman, who leads the Arctic Marine Litter Project.

Making the diagnosis

“Cleaning-up beaches is one way to treat the problem of plastics in our oceans, or, as it is commonly referred to, the plastic soup. Another way is to prevent plastics from ending up in the ocean in the first place. For this a diagnosis should be made first: where is it coming from, what is causing it to wash ashore and what can be done to prevent this. Based on that information, measures can be taken to prevent marine littering in the future,” says Wouter Jan.

Photo credits: Anneke van den Brink
Photo credits: Anneke van den Brink

In November 2019, Wouter Jan Strietman and his project team consisting of Wageningen Economic Research, Wageningen Marine Research and Leeways Marine partnered with WWF Denmark and researchers from Aarhus University to analyse more than 300 kilos of litter that had been collected during a beach clean-up done by Qeqqata Municipality in Amerloq Fjord (south of Sisimiut) and local inhabitants and students on beaches near Maniitsoq and Qaqortoq.

To create a better understanding of the sources, causes, environmental effects and solutions to marine litter in West Greenland, they organised a so-called Litter-ID session in an old warehouse overlooking the harbour of Sisimiut. Together with local and national policymakers, fishing gear experts and volunteers, they carefully sorted all of the collected beach litter on the floor. Like detectives they looked for clues that could provide a better understanding of where the litter originated from, why it ended up on the coasts of West Greenland and what can be done to prevent this.

Photo credits: Martine van den Heuvel-Greve
Photo credits: Martine van den Heuvel-Greve

The source of the litter is local

“We were able to make the diagnosis,” says Strietman. “Almost all litter was of local origin and consisted of everyday products used in local communities and settlements. It also consisted of products used during outdoor activities such as fishing and hunting. Examples of such products are fishing nets, shotgun shells, outboard engine oil containers but also the type of everyday products that people would bring along on day trips, such as soft drinks, crisps and biscuits.”

Photo credits: Martine van den Heuvel-Greve
Photo credits: Martine van den Heuvel-Greve

A few of the litter items carried animals and plants (‘marine fouling organisms’) such as moss animals (bryozoans), calcifying tube worms or barnacles. As floating litter may carry such organisms for long distances, there may be a risk of introducing new (non-indigenous) species to these locations and causing a disruption in the local ecosystem.

Future steps

What to do next? The team formulated several recommendations for local and national policy makers in Greenland to tackle the issue of marine litter in West Greenland. Since most of the litter was of local origin, the first recommendation is to engage with the community, hunters and fishers to start a dialogue to determine which practical solutions could work and to prevent plastic litter from ending up in the sea. In addition, improving existing or developing new education programmes at schools could also help to raise awareness about the benefits of a clean environment and waste collection.

Making a Fundamental Change

The Arctic Marine Litter Project is part of Wageningen University & Research’s Fundamental Change campaign. The campaign highlights fifteen research projects that showcase the many different ways in which WUR contributes to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Individuals, governments, companies and foundations are invited to support these projects with a charitable donation. Donor funding for the work in West Greenland was kindly granted by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, WWF the Netherlands and WWF Sweden, the Circumpolar Conservation Union and the Dolfinarium in the Netherlands.

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