When I think of litter I imagine it in a heavily populated urban setting. Litter tends to accumulate in roadside ditches, parks and other well traveled areas right?
Well, you might be surprised to hear that a recent study performed by researchers in the Arctic revealed an alarming trend. Their findings showed a significant increase in litter on the Arctic seabed, one of the most remote regions of our planet.
I was a little skeptical at first. How’d they get this data, and why would they be hunting for litter in the Arctic in the first place?
Well it turns out these researchers were not originally intending to do a litter study. They were actually using photographs of the sea floor to document deep-sea biodiversity, and based on a “gut feeling” they decided to look closer at these photos. When I first saw some of these pictures, I found them very disturbing. A plastic grocery bag found some 2.5 km below the surface! A rubber band entangled with sea-life. Tinfoil encrusted with more sea creatures. These were just a few of the examples. It turned out that litter rates had doubled from 2002 to 2011. If litter was appearing in such high rates in the Arctic deep sea, the most remote region on Earth, what does this mean for the rest of the planet?
So why is litter in the Arctic a bad thing? Some might argue that sea life thrives on man-made objects and litter creates habitat. After all, 68% of the photos that showed litter were inhabited by sea life. Great, so we’ve made all those critters a home! It’s well known that sunken ships hulls, freight containers and other man-made objects are used to create reef habitat. So no big deal right?
Well the problem is that the majority of the litter in the photos was plastic, and plastics are made of chemicals. These chemicals tend to bio-accumulate in the environment, meaning when those small sea creatures absorb/ingest the chemicals and are eaten by bigger sea creatures such as fish, those chemicals become more and more concentrated. Check out our blog on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to give you an idea what this means.
In addition to the potential for toxins, waste in the Arctic can make changes to a delicate ecosystem in ways we may not fully understand yet. Take this extreme example of good intentions gone wrong in Florida. In the early 1970’s, biologists and government officials dumped as many as 2 million tires in the ocean off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in an attempt to create coral reef habitat. Their good intentions have created an ecological nightmare. The coral cannot grow on the tires and a massive coral dead-zone now exists. Clean-up efforts continue to this day.
Luckily there’s no litter problem of this scale in the Arctic — that we know of — yet. But this study definitely brings to light the importance of proper disposal of our waste.
While most of us probably won’t be on an Arctic expedition anytime soon, we can do the planet a favour and throw our plastic wrappers in the garbage and place our plastic bottles in our Blue Box so they can be taken care of properly.
Seeing this litter in the Arctic should be a reminder that we’re connected to all other parts of the world, and that our actions here impact even the most remote regions of the planet.