Cleans beaches quickly and dramatically reduces plastic fragments released into the environment, according to the first scientific evidence of its kind.
Experts from Norce, one of Norway‘s largest research organizations found that within a year after volunteers removed bottles, bags and other large pieces of plastic from the shores of an island near Bergen, the amount of microplastics on land and in the water dropped by 99.5%.
The researchers believe that high levels of UV in sunlight and warm temperatures in shallow water lead to a much faster breakdown of plastic fragments than previously thought possible.
They say it should motivate a global effort to clean up coasts around the world.
Gunhild Bodtker, senior researcher at Norce, told Sky News: “I was pleasantly surprised because it means the cleanup has effectively reduced the leakage of microplastics into the ocean. And that’s really good news.
“Clean up plastic on the coasts, clean up all plastic in the environment. It really makes a difference.”
Sky News joined volunteers on a mass clean-up of plastic washed up in the Hardangerfjord in western Norway, one of the largest in the world.
Its orientation means it acts as a giant funnel, collecting marine plastic swept up by ocean currents from as far afield as the UK, France and the Netherlands.
We found stretches of what the Norce researchers call “plastic soil” – a layer, up to 1m deep, of tightly packed fragments mixed with organic matter.
The microplastic pieces, which are less than 5 mm in size, have probably accumulated in the fjord over the last 50 years. They are virtually impossible to remove.
Torgeir Naess, mayor of Kvam municipality, was part of the year-long clean-up.
“When I used to come here as a little kid in the mid-1970s, it was just a couple of ping-pong balls and some bottles,” he said. “You can see now, it has increased dramatically.”
But the new research strongly suggests that all is not lost. As long as large pieces of plastic are removed regularly, the fragments should begin to disappear.
That will only happen where the microplastics are exposed to the elements, researchers have said.
Plastic waste in deep, cold water can still take centuries to degrade.
Some of the submerged plastic is ‘ghost gear’ – lost fishing nets and lines that continue to trap and kill marine life.
Norwegian authorities are trying to remove the equipment left behind.
We saw a team use a remote controlled submersible to hunt down a string of 10 minnows lost by a fishing boat.
The pots were pulled to the surface, revealing a catch of fish, eels and even squid that would have died in a caged grave.
Susanna Huneide Thorbjørnsen, a scientist at the Institute of Marine Research, recorded the contents of each pot before returning the marine life to the fjord.
“Ghost fishing continues to harvest, and it’s not benefiting anyone,” she said. “It’s also an issue of animal welfare – as well as plastic.”
More than 9,000 tons of plastic have been cleaned from Norway’s coast since a whale died in Bergen six years ago, its stomach full of bags.
The death proved to be a turning point for a nation and Sky News followed the story in an award-winning documentary.
Kenneth Bruvik, who has been spearheading the national clean-up, said: “The aim is to clean the coastline completely.
“At the same time, plastic will come back, but we will continue [levels] down and clean year by year.”
Together with Rwanda, Norway is leading the UN negotiations to agree on a legally binding global plastics treaty to reduce production and pollution.
Another round of negotiations will take place in Kenya in November with the ambition that it will enter into force in 2025.
But cleaning up the plastic pollution that’s already out there matters, too—and there’s now science to back it up.