By June Grønseth
As each day passes in Lofoten, Norway, I go outside to capture the beauty of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. As they dance above the pure, clean Arctic this evening, I am excited and happy, a feeling that goes straight through my heart. I am so lucky to experience this natural wonder and capture it again on this pristine beach.
Yet the beach only appears clean because I’ve picked up all the visible plastic. Each spring I scour the beach, which is very close to my home, for trash, and every year find more and more plastic. This summer my husband and I cleared enough waste to fill three trucks.
A lot comes from the fisheries and from fish farming, which is practiced along the entire coast of Norway.
But other plastic has traveled further. Plastic bottles from around the world—Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America—are dropped on our beach by the currents of the ocean.
The bottle above was photographed on a small, uninhabited island. It is frozen on the outside because winter is approaching, just like my heart when I review the statistics: One million bottles are sold each second worldwide. Each day this adds up to a whopping 86.4 billion bottles.
Even just this summer, I picked up 3,650 in my area alone.
Preserving the Beauty
I want my grandchildren and their great-grandchildren to be able to sit and enjoy the beauty of our nature in the north, watching the birds, eating the fish, and looking at the ocean, knowing it is healthy and a good home for those living beneath its surface.
Why are these drinking bottles from Europe, Asia, and the U.S. washing up on our shores? Who let the plastic bottles into the oceans in the first place?
Of the estimated 450 million tons of plastic that were produced in 2017, 80 percent was single-use.
That encompasses coffee lids, plastic forks, water bottles, lunch containers, shopping bags, and children’s toys. And 30 percent of single-use plastic will reach the oceans. Fifteen tons of plastic enter the ocean each minute.
There is now one kilo of plastic for every five kilos of fish in the ocean.
If waste continues to accumulate at the current rate, then there will be more plastic than fish by 2050.
Salmon are eating fish filled with microplastics, which get passed to larger species in the food chain—including people. Microplastics are already in our food and our tap water.
A lot of the plastic that has entered the water cycle throughout the years has broken down into smaller particles that float in the upper levels of the ocean. There, it is ingested by millions of seabirds, fish, and other animals, many of which die from plastic poisoning.
This spring, a whale that normally lives near the Canaries Islands was found in the southwest of Norway, in the harbor of Stord. People did what they could to get the whale to sea again, but it had no energy to swim, so it was eventually put down.
Since it was rare for the whale to be discovered at this latitude, the University of Bergen and the Natural Historic Museum did an autopsy on the carcass. They found that its stomach contained more than 30 plastic bags and plastic sheets. The whale had starved to death. Many other creatures have faced a similar fate, as the plastic blocking their intestines prevents them from feeding.
Scientist believe much of this pollution comes from Asia, particularly China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
But there are plenty of other countries that must be held to account as well. Citizens in all countries use plastics in everyday life, and this plastic can be swept away by the wind or dumped intentionally into the sea.
Oceans have no borders, only currents, and tides. Lightweight plastic easily travels vast distances.
The devastation humans have caused with plastic production is our generation’s largest disaster. Now is the time to change our behavior and ban one-time-use plastic. People won’t stop using plastic until it’s no longer available, so as long as production continues, the amount of plastic ending up in our oceans will escalate. Today industries claim it is cheaper to produce new plastic than to recycle it, but with production, plants come even more pollution.
Over the past year, volunteers in Vaeroy (Værøy), where I was born, have picked up 140 cubic meters (5,000 cubic feet) of plastic from our shores. Last week, 65 large bags were flown by helicopter to be loaded into trucks and brought to a plant built for burning garbage, all paid for by the Norwegian government.
This plastic is choking our oceans and marine life. We must turn to alternative, sustainable materials to replace plastic: glass, paper, cotton, linen, wool, silk, and other natural, biodegradable fibers. The U.N. and other international organizations must take up this issue and act now to ban all one-time-use plastic. People around the world need to pitch in and clean up their beaches and oceans, and until a ban is in place, turn to reusable bags and containers.
I would love to go to my beaches in Lofoten 20 years from now and see that we have ended the plastic disaster. The state of the oceans in 2050, or 2100, depends on how people act now.
June Grønseth EFIAP, PPSA is a photographer based in Lofoten, Norway, who documents nature and environmental crises. She’s particularly concerned about the threat of plastic pollution in our oceans. Visit her website.
[Photos by June Grønseth]
This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.