The seas north of Norway and to the east of Greenland are a one-way street for the plastic waste created by communities along the east coast of the USA, the UK, Scandinavia, and the rest of north-west Europe.
Plastic waste is transported by ocean currents to the Arctic Ocean where it can affect the sensitive Arctic ecosystem, with knock-on effects for humans as the area is home to large fisheries.
These are the findings of a large research collaboration between twelve institutions from eight countries.
“We found that the Barents Sea is the terminal site for ocean plastic pollution, with high loads also encountered in the Greenland Sea,” says co-author Carlos Duarte, a professor in marine biology at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, and the Arctic Research Center at Aarhus University, Denmark.
“It happens to be also the site of one of the most productive cod fisheries in the world. So the concern is that plastic accumulated there could enter the food web, to which humans are linked via fisheries. Other animals can also ingest the plastic, particularly sea birds, which are very abundant in the Arctic,” he says.
The new results are published in the journal Science Advances and are the last piece in the puzzle that now completes the global map of plastic pollution in the ocean.
Scientists collected and analysed some of this plastic waste during a five-month-long cruise of the Arctic Ocean and compared this with plastics collected during similar studies in oceans and seas around the world. They discovered that most of the plastic waste that had collected in the Arctic Ocean was not local and must have come from far away.