Norway’s most beautiful nature reserve is being destroyed, researchers say
Plastic pollution is an insidious problem around the world, from Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench. Places where plastics accumulate often suffer from the worst environmental problems.
Most of the time these are ‘convenient’ dumping grounds – but what happens when a pristine nature reserve in Norway becomes one of the most polluted places in the country?
Froan Nature Reserve in Trøndelag is one of the largest coastal reserves in Scandinavia. It is a rich constellation of islets protected in the name of birds, sealed and other animals that nest there. Unfortunately, coastal currents mean that marine litter is constantly washing up on shore.
Today, a research project from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) mapped plastic pollution for the first time since a cleanup operation began in 2017. 5.5 million liters of marine litter have been collected from the reserve and the nearby coastal village of Mausund over the past four years, plus 14,200 kilos of oil, chemicals and other liquids.
School children, students, politicians, tourists, retirees and some hardworking members of the local cycling club are among the 1,500 volunteers who have joined the colossal littering effort.
“It’s a big task with a lot of challenges, but we believe in it. It helps that everyone involved in the project feels that we are bringing something positive to the environment,” says Odd Arne Arnesen, Managing Director of Mausund Field Station, whose employees tackle the waste daily.
Despite some surveys showing that around 70% of this plastic waste comes from abroad, the team also takes a local view to treat it at source. “That doesn’t mean that the responsibility lies primarily with people in other countries,” Arnesen said.
“Much of the plastic waste here comes from shipping and local industry, such as ropes, fishing gear and building materials. It’s not just the plastic that drifts onto the shore.
What is the environmental impact of this plastic waste?
Perhaps the most disturbing discovery of the project – published in Total Environmental Science – is the composition of the soil samples taken from the site. These large pieces, lined with fishing nets and trawls, have been found to contain around 25% plastic on average, with some as high as 72%.
“We calculated that a 27-litre soil sample, containing 25% plastic, would break down into around 530 million microplastic particles,” says NTNU senior lecturer Hilde Ervik. The impact of these tiny microplastics on Human health are the subject of many ongoing studies.
But the consequences for Norwegian coastal wildlife are already evident. You won’t find earthworms in contaminated soil, writing NTNU Advisor Steinar Brandslet. And that’s a bad sign.
Other alarming omens are found in the archipelago’s freshwater springs.
“Drinking water for birds and animals is heavily contaminated,” says Ervik. The chemicals that go into the plastic to give it its color, strength and flexibility leak out in the waste that pollutes the environment around it.
What can be done to restore Norway’s natural gem?
There is an urgency in the clean-up work taking place in Mausund and Froan Reserve: the marine litter needs to be cleaned up before it gets too buried in the ground.
Currently, all waste that cannot be recycled – and this is the major part – is incinerated. Arnesen acknowledges that “this is not the best possible sustainable solution, and we hope that we can eventually put in place better solutions with NTNU”.
Hand cleaning is also unsustainable for the team in the long run. They are now pushing for mechanical solutions to completely clean up the ground so that habitats and species can recover.
“Overall, the [Norwegian] The government and the UN are discussing how pollution will affect the continued existence of the world’s oceans, but after many years of cleaning up work, we are still doing it 100% manually.
“This can’t go on – we have to get to work with new technological and industrialized solutions,” says Arnesen.