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A polar bear passes by some of the collected trash on a beach near Reinsdyrflya, far north on Spitsbergen. FOTO: Geir Barstein

Arctic landfill:

"I lack words. This is depressing"

Sad sights during this year's cleanup cruise.

Wolfgang Zach goes ashore and sighs.

"I've never seen anything like this before. I'm lacking words. This is depressing…"

The beach just south of Mosselbukta at the northern edge of Spitsbergen looks, for lack of a better or nicer word, totally f-ed up. Almost like a scene in television reports from countries we'd rather not compare ourselves with.

"It is absolutely, completely incredible. There is no hope," he says, shaking his head while trying to drag a large keg onto the dinghy at the shoreline.

Zach and the rest of a team of volunteers participating in The Governor of Svalbard's annual garbage cleanup expedition set out a major clearing task.

Hidden 'treasures'

Five, ten, twenty, thirty and certainly more fishing floats are collected.

Crushed fish boxes, packing straps and fishnet remnants are everywhere, while small plastic pieces in all colors of the rainbow "spice up" areas between between the large pieces of garbage visible from a distance.

For the most part, the debris comes from the fishing industry.

"This was a sad beach to see, but it is unfortunately nothing unusual to see up here," says Henrik Rotneberg, an environmental attorney for the governor.

"This is a gigantic job."

Someone discovers a beer crate from the Faroe Islands, while others are trying to gather up a length of rope. It is stuck to a pipe.

"What the hell is this?"

"A Zodiac!" Rotneberg exclaims. "There is a whole inflatable boat now buried in the gravel."

The crushed dinghy is dug up from the shoreline, and Zach uses a bread knife to cut it loose from a net and a fuel can.

"This is the first I've experienced finding something like that," says Arild Lyssand, a police chief lieutenant for the governor and a leader on seven such expeditions, as he hauls the wrecked dinghy aboard the modern one and carries the dirty cargo back to the Polarsyssel.

Garbage ship

The wrecked dinghy fills nearly an entire "big bag" by itself. Each bag holds one cubic meter and there are many, many more.

A total of 101 bags are stacked on the deck when the governor's ship returns from the eight-day cruise on Monday night, mostly filled with plastic from the beaches of northern Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet.

"We could have cleared more, but to adjust our plans because of the weather," Lyssand says.

Deadly plastics

Plastic garbage is a huge environmental problem that kills countless animals every day.

"Now we've found a net with three reindeer antlers snagged in it, far inland. That leads to greater tragedies and sufferings of the individual animals," says Solvår Reiten, an environmental advisor to the governor, adding it's only the small tip of an enormous iceberg.

"We're not even seeing all the animals that get stuck in these out in the sea. Birds eat it and die. Small organisms ingest microscopic plastic parts and that accumulates up the food chain. Finally, the toxins end up on our own plates."

Growing problem

Debris and and other marine pollution are a "gift" that just keeps giving and giving and giving.

Every year, 8.8 million tons of new garbage is dumped into the oceans.

Most of it is in the seas and the quantities found everywhere on the shorelines are plenty disturbing since they are only a fraction of the problem.

"It takes an average of six years from when a beach is cleared to when the litter is back at the same level," Reiten says.

The days on cleanup cruise are long and physically demanding. In the evenings, after the marathon effort, there are a few cold brews before it is becomes obvious another cycle is coming the next day.

"There! There is a plastic crate!" exclaims Lyssand in the lounge aboard the Polarsyssel, a beer in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other.

"We must pick it up tomorrow."

Awareness

The satisfaction of seeing a newly cleared, clean and pretty beach is great, but at the same time there is a sense of performing a hopeless task.

It's a job fitting for Sisyphus and it's impossible to catch everything. Two teams of 12 people manage to clean just a few kilometers of beach during the week. Globally, there are over one million kilometers of coastline.

The permanent solution is not continuous beach cleaning, but individual awareness, Reiten says.

"We see that there is more awareness about this and that's good" she says. "The problem is international and everyone, regardless of country, must pull in the same direction. The great thing with these cleanups is that it contributes to awareness. Many people think it's so pristine here in Svalbard, but it is not. It looks bad."

"Individuals must take responsibility for their own garbage. At college campus there are generally signs with the message 'clean up after yourself, your mother does not work here.' It is not so easy for Mother Earth to fix this by herself."

It takes a little more than an hour and repeated trips with skiff zipping over to the Polarsyssel until the "large trash" on the beach is cleared. The volunteers are sweating.

"Has this beach really been cleared before?" asks Rakel Huglen, one of the volunteers.

"Or is this just what the beaches look like?"

Se bildet større

Large amounts of fishnet floats, plastic trays, buckets, ropes litter the beaches on Svalbard. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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Police officer Arild Lyssand surveys the astoundingly polluted beach. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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Wolfgang Zach, one of the volunteers, tries to tidy up a whole boat found crumpled under the gravel. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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A large plastic box is stuck on Nordaustlandet, one of Svaldbards most remote places. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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A fully functional wake board was one of the more curious finds. Jo Gjerstad took the opportunity for a ride. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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I a week, 101 large bags were filled up with trash and brought back to Longyearbyen for processing. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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Skremmes bort fra folk

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