A toolbox for comprehensive plastics monitoring in the Arctic 20 November 2020Plastics in the ArcticMonitoringIcelandArctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme AMAP’s Expert Group on Litter and Microplastics is developing the first monitoring plan that is looking for plastics in the entire ecosystem The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) has a mandate to monitor and assess the status and trends of contaminants in the Arctic. Plastics therefore has been on the Working Group’s agenda for some time. However, recently AMAP decided to step up its efforts on the plastic issue and established an Expert Group on Litter and Microplastics. The Expert Group currently is working on developing a comprehensive monitoring plan and technical monitoring guidelines for litter and microplastics in the Arctic. It will be the first time that all parts of an Arctic ecosystem are examined for traces of litter and microplastics – from the air to the bottom of the sea. The Expert Group’s Co-Chairs Eivind Farmen and Jennifer Provencher together with Jan Rene Larsen from the AMAP Secretariat tell us more about AMAP’s new focus area. What triggered AMAP to set up a Litter and Microplastic Expert Group? Jan Rene Larsen: AMAP already had released an assessment on Chemicals of Emerging Arctic Concern when the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group published the Desktop Study on Marine Litter including Microplastics in the Arctic in 2019. PAME followed up on its desktop study by developing a Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic, and it was decided that AMAP should support this effort. Monitoring marine litter and microplastics in the environment will be one way to evaluate how successful the regional action plan is. So, AMAP established the Expert Group on Litter and Microplastic in spring 2019 and we consider this effort a good example of cooperation between the Arctic Council Working Groups, especially between AMAP, PAME and the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF). However, it is important to note that while the action plan is focused on the marine environment, our Expert Group’s scope is broader. We are also interested in monitoring and assessing the occurrence and effects of litter and microplastics in rivers and lakes, on land, and in the air. What are the effects of litter and microplastics, and why is a monitoring plan needed? Eivind Farmen: We are building on the findings of PAME‘s desktop study. We know that litter and plastic debris for example is harmful for birds, turtles and whales, as they ingest large parts of plastic or get entangled in it. Yet, in regard to microplastics, the effects are much less known. One aspect that is common to both microplastics and litter is that the substances accumulate in the environment and are very persistent to degradation – and that in itself grants the need for a monitoring plan. Jan Rene Larsen: We will try to distinguish between the direct physical effects of litter and microplastics and their chemical effects. Chemical substances can either adhere to plastic items or can be released when they degrade. Whereas AMAP in past assessments has addressed contaminants like mercury or persistent organic pollutants (POPs), the effects of plastics are a cocktail of physical and chemical effects. What is the current status of litter and microplastics monitoring in the Arctic? Eivind Farmen: I don’t think there is a lot of ongoing microplastic monitoring in the Arctic at the present. We do have some one-off research studies, some litter monitoring on beaches but the efforts are fragmented and not coordinated. Jennifer Provencher: The best way to describe it would be: opportunistic. There are some excellent efforts on national level, for example the shoreline work under the OSPAR convention and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as the efforts by the seabird community. But these efforts are only looking at two compartments of the environment, while our aim is to provide guidance on 11 compartments where plastics can occur. If I was a high school teacher grading our combined current efforts on plastics monitoring in the Arctic, I would write: needs improvement. What are some of the benefits of a comprehensive monitoring plan? Jennifer Provencher: Comprehensive monitoring of anything is the basis for informed decision making. We have a timely advantage in relation to litter and microplastics as people are making policy decisions on this issue right now. So, the more coordinated and comprehensive we can be in our monitoring, the better we can feed in to those decisions and policies. Eivind Farmen: I would also add that our work contributes to future assessments, such as the ones prepared by AMAP on contaminants in the Arctic. In order to do good assessments, you will need comprehensive monitoring that covers different compartments and has a wide geographical spread.