In the bag: Far less garbage than normal found during governor’s annual cleanup cruise. That’s a bad thing.


It’s not enough for people to trash some of Mother Nature’s best beachfront property; they’re also drugging her so she’s reacting abnormally when folks try to clean up a bit of the mess.

Visitors were greeted with ice barricades and hostile weather when trying to approach many of the coastlines in northern Svalbard during this year’s cleanup cruise organized by The Governor of Svalbard. Those obstacles meant participants only collected about 60 cubic meters of trash in two five-day trips, far short of the average of about 100 cubic meters – to say nothing of the 155 cubic meters in 2013.

“There were demanding ice and weather conditions this year, and that meant we did not get to use the time well,” Knut Fossum, the governor’s environmental protection director, told NRK on Monday. “The problem with coastal waste in Svalbard is chronic. There is nothing to suggest that things have improved.”

As always, while equipment from fishing boats such as fishnets and trawl balls were the most colorful and visible items collected, the variety of debris reveals plenty of things making their way north from major municipal areas in Europe and elsewhere.

“Yellow soap bottles, red wine bottles with red and blue corks, and various fishing gear,” wrote Anna Svensson, a reporter for Sveriges Television AB, one of two media correspondents selected for the cruise. “A rancid can from Spain, a juice box from Lithuania, a Russian candy wrapper and a Swedish snuff box.”

This is the 17th year the governor has hosted the cruises, which selects 22 residents in a lottery that hundreds typically enter and offers two additional spaces to the highest bidder in a charity auction (winning bids have been as high as 20,000 kroner). The cruises are ongoing because it takes about six years for a “cleared” beach to again be filled with trash, but unusual weather patterns in recent years are adding complications to the already chronic problem.

In short, warmer temperatures means northern seas are increasingly free of ice for longer periods, allowing more trash to flow into the area, and scientists are also concerned trash long caught in the Arctic ice sheet is being released. But this summer ice clogging the fjords south of the ice sheet and unfavorable weather have hampered some tourist voyages in the northern part of Svalbard as well as the governor’s trash cruise.

Larger items such as netting and ropes that are a constant threat to wildlife that gets entangled are a priority during cleanups and their colorfulness usually makes them easy to spot. But the cleanups frequently leave behind large amounts of tiny net fragments to fragile to pick up intact, bits of plastic and other small debris. Such items have been found in a high percentage of birds and other small wildlife, often in fatal qualities, and predators eating those animals means the problem carries up the food chain.

That, combined with the regeneration of trash within years, means many participants are aware they’re fighting a never-ending battle that cannot be won. But Eli Mathisen, head of this year’s coastal cleanups, told the Swedish TV station the expeditions are worthwhile even if they don’t make a significant environmental impact by themselves.

“What we do on junk expeditions will not do anything drastic to the environment,”Mathisen said. “We can’t solve the problem by cleaning. But that’s not just why we do it, it’s also to show the problem. The biggest job is to make sure that it does not end up in the ocean and on the beaches from the outset.”