Pick of the litter: Removing big pieces of trash from Isfjorden improves beaches; small pieces explain how it got there


The hundreds of volunteers who spent their days and weekends last summer clearing beaches near Longyearbyen of trash are likely to most remember the huge rusting oil barrels and other large items that dominated muscle and mass during the pickups. But researchers spending months afterward analyzing debris are far more interested in the tiny bots collected from tiny areas cleaned by those volunteers.

Both groups are being credited with making significant environmental contributions to Project Isfjorden, in ways as different as their results.

About 6,630 kilograms of trash was cleared from about 22.7 kilometers of coastline during seven cleanups at various locations in Isfjorden, which is recent years has become one of Svalbard’s most-visited areas. As with an increasing number of shore cleanups occurring throughout the archipelago, the trash ranged from discarded commercial fishing gear to urban waste from far-away cities to litter from Longyearbyen dumped in the channel – not to mention lots of glass bottles and other leftovers from beach parties.

“Marine debris owned by no one,” a report released last week summarizing the project notes. “That’s what we want to tackle. Taking ownership of rubbish is important and it’s something we’ve raised in Project Isfjorden. But above all we’ve tidied up – our own rubbish and other people’s.”

“The situation along the coast of Isfjorden’s many small branch fjords, particularly on the southern side, often generates surprise, shock and anger. Ironically, the worst-affected beach is the one closest to where we live.”

A presentation about the project by Geir Wing Gabrielsen, an environmental director at the Norwegian Polar Institute, is scheduled at 5 p.m. Thursday at Svalbard Museum.

The project also had one other side benefit – members of the Longyearbyen Dog Club were able to repair landslide/avalanche-damaged kennels at the outskirts of town by obtaining a grant for the shore cleanup from the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund, then recruiting the volunteers who participated in the actual pickups.

Adult-only, family and student groups spent either one or three days participating in cleanups, with organizers estimating there were 350 “participants” (a figure that includes people taking part in more than one cleanup). Among them were about 160 students and teachers from Longyearbyen School during two designated student trips.

But while most of the volunteers were looking at the big picture, so to speak, subgroups scoured much smaller areas at four locations picking up literally every fragment they could find in a 100-meter-long stretch of beach as part of the scientific study. Researchers also asked participants in the larger cleanup to provide all bottle caps collected along with fishnet samples.

Early analysis revealed more than 200 litter types, dominated by unidentifiable plastic/polystyrene pieces that accounted for 66 percent of the debris samples, according to the Arctic Marine Litter project, which is coordinated by Wageningen Economic Research in collaboration with Norut and Oceanwide Expeditions.

Other top items included glass bottles (six percent), caps/lids (five percent), strapping bands (three percent), cotton bud sticks (three percent) and netting (two percent).

“Most of the litter items mentioned in the table above most likely originate from elsewhere than Svalbard, since most of the litter washing up on the shores of the Arctic originates from sea-based activities in the region itself, particularly fisheries, but also from land-based or sea-based activities further away,” a report by the researchers states.

An exception is like the cotton bud sticks, which likely originated from Longyearbyen after people flushed them down the toilet, according to the report.

“In this way, they enter the sewage system and can reach the sea if the sewage water is not treated,” the report notes. “In the case of Longyearbyen, untreated sewage water is released into Adventfjorden, making it likely that a considerable number of cotton buds collected on the beaches around Isfjorden originate from Longyearbyen.”

Further analysis of the debris is planned, including trying to better define the source of trawler debris such as fishnets that are a major presence on shores throughout Svalbard.

“It became clear that almost all of these were actually parts of nets that had been replaced by new ones after they got damaged,” the report notes. “It is not 100 percent clear why these replaced pieces of nets have ended up in the ocean; discarding could be a major cause, but at this moment this is pure speculation and will be discussed further with experts on this topic.”