Cleaning up Wildlife-Killing Plastic on Svalbard’s Remote Beaches

On a distant and inaccessible Arctic coastline, determined volunteers gather rubbish from marine industries that threatens the lives of pristine animals.

Foundation - aktiv i friluft
Credit: Ragnhild Utne / Aktiv i Friluft

Far to the north of Norway’s snowy mainland, the Svalbard archipelago is a stunning pearl in the country’s crown. With a cold and inhospitable climate to match its rugged beauty, Svalbard has always deterred all but the hardiest settlers. Even today, only 3,000 people live here, leaving vast swathes of wilderness untouched where nature can thrive.

Yet even on the very edge of this remote Arctic archipelago, human-generated waste is accumulating. On the westernmost island of Prins Karls Forland, fishing-related rubbish such as nets and ropes pose a threat to the wildlife. In recent years, visitors have seen reindeer with their antlers tangled in sprawling, heavy ropes, and found the carcasses of such noble beasts who had already succumbed to a long and sad demise. The area’s polar bears, harbour seals, and various seabirds are also similarly at risk.

Outdoor aficionados are ready to help 

Fortunately for the wildlife and the environment, volunteers from Svalbard’s largest town, Longyearbyen, are determined to make a difference. The town’s sports club Svalbard Turn has established an organisation called Aktiv i Friluft (Active in the outdoors) to gather beach-cleaning manpower. Aktiv i Friluft offers its members the opportunity to go to beautiful, remote places with other like-minded people and make a tangible difference to the environment, by gathering human-produced rubbish. 

Their latest initiative – Project Forlandet – took the tidying volunteers to the western shore of Prins Karls Forland. This also provided people with the opportunity to travel out of Longyearbyen, which is otherwise difficult without a boat. The goal of Project Forlandet was to clear as much of the island during the Svalbard summer as they could, beginning with the western side and moving to other areas if the weather allowed. 

Armed with experience

Aktiv i Friluft has experience from similar projects, having contributed to the removal of 20 tons of rubbish from various beaches in Norway’s Isfjorden. In fact, they have briefly landed on the east and south side of Prins Karls Forland before, when 10 people cleared over 1.7 tons of marine litter over two days. Nevertheless, conducting a dedicated and sustained operation on Prins Karls Forland was a new and considerable challenge. 

In a place so remote and wild, it takes experience and local knowledge to safely conduct an operation like Project Forlandet. Moreover, it takes operational expertise to make the most of the very narrow time window during which it is possible at all.

Access to Prins Karls Forland is restricted during much of the summer, due to the breeding season. What’s more, the summer is short. With sub-zero temperatures quickly following and freezing the ground, litter collection activities have to stop. Knowing this, Aktiv i Friluft sought special permission from the government to start three days before the nesting season was officially over, to maximise their effectiveness.

Targeting the rubbish gathering efforts

Aktiv i Friluft decided to split up their new Project Forlandet into two operations. The first was to take volunteers into the field to collect marine litter, sort it, and prepare it for transport. The second operation was to coordinate the transport of the rubbish from Prins Karls Forland to Longyearbyen for disposal. Meanwhile, a polar bear watch would be kept at all times.

To do all this, a ship was anchored off Prins Karls Forland, to act as a base for the major beach clean-up.

Aktiv i Friluft already knew which areas to target thanks to mapping of the marine litter by the Svalbard Intertidal Project. They also had pictures and information from other research. These sources all gave a good indication of what lay ahead and provided good information for detailed planning of the beach cleaning expedition.

Ready to go when ship costs increased

With everything prepared, the project was ready to go in 2020, when the global coronavirus pandemic put everything on hold. Then, in 2021, the pandemic stalled the project once again.

Finally, with further funding from Hurtigruten Foundation of NOK 100,000 (approx. €10,100), the project could go ahead from 12 August until 2 September 2022. The results were impressive, with a huge amount of rubbish collected and safely removed from this remote paradise.

An example to the world

The organisers hope that this ambitious approach to cleaning in a remote place that is not easily accessible, and in a national park that had never been cleared before, can serve as an example to the world. By making it clear how widespread marine litter is in Svalbard, this very visual consequence of human activities will hopefully increase the focus on how rubbish is a growing threat in the Arctic more generally. In turn, the project will contribute to making people more aware of reducing plastic consumption generally, in other parts of Norway and in the wider world.

About Aktiv i Friluft 

Aktiv i Friluft is a project run by the sports club Svalbard Turn to promote environmentally friendly outdoor activities. The target group for the project is the population of Longyearbyen, with particular emphasis on new groups and families with small children. As well as increasing awareness of health-promoting activities, Aktiv i Friluft seeks to establish collaborative relationships with other organizations and local administrations linked to its activities. 

Where can I learn more? 

You can read more about the project and other activities on the Aktiv i Friluft website.​

Here are 10 things to know about your environmental commitment when visiting Svalbard.  ​