It’s a sad portrait of polar bear cubs toying with a big piece of plastic while their mother rests nearby – and just another viral instance of oh-so-many recent tragic pictures of bears, seals, reindeer, birds and other wildlife affected by the wasteful habits of humans. Then again, like the others, it conveys just one of the oh-so-many ways trash, pollution and climate change is screwing things up for the native inhabitants.
The photo by Kevin Morgans is an iconic visual diary for the 10-day Sail Against Plastic expedition he and 14 other scientists, artists, filmmakers and activists just completed in Svalbard. The group spent their time aboard the Blue Clipper sailboat sampling the sea, air and beaches along the isolated coasts of the archipelago.
“We were very lucky to be invited to take part in this unique expedition, and had an amazing time seeing Arctic wildlife, stunning glaciers and experiencing 24-hour sunlight,” Claire Wallerstein, a member of the team, told The Independent. “However, it was also a very sobering experience to see just how much plastic is making its way to this incredibly remote and apparently pristine environment.”
While there were plenty of photos of trash the group discovered ranging from cigarette butts to discarded Svalbardbutikken plastic bags decorated with polar bear images, it was the real-life polar bears chewing on the large piece of plastic on an otherwise clean hillside that captured the fancy of the global media.
The Telegraph of London featured it as their “pictures of the day” for – appropriately enough – Friday the 13th. Headlines like “It’s hard to bear as plastic tide even reaches the Arctic” (Metro) were featured on other U.K. newspapers. And most coverage referred to the larger impacts of trash in the area, including recent research showing almost 90 percent of fulmars had plastics in their stomachs, with an average of 15 pieces each.
Cleanup efforts by local groups, environmental organizations and tour operators have been increasingly common and high profile. While debris from fishing vessels such as nets and trawl balls collected during cleanups going back well over a decade are still common, local cleanups have found trash that supposedly came from Florida and the Sail Against Plastic said much of the trash they found on every beach they visited came from urban areas.
“What we found on the beaches was sadly not so very different from what we find back home,” Wallerstein said. “There was plenty of fishing waste, but the saddest thing was just how much of the waste blighting the Arctic is the same old disposable detritus of our daily lives –
plastic bottles, cotton bud sticks, cigarette ends, wet wipes, polystyrene and food packaging.”