View of Gulf of Finland, port of St. Petersburg

Ecology of the Gulf of Finland and the Neva Bay: plastic pollution of the marine environment

Petersburg scientists are sounding the alarm over the pollution of the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga with plastic bottles and household chemicals.

In accordance with the EU strategy for the Baltic Sea region, cooperation between Russia and the EU in the field of environmental protection is relevant.

This article presents several results of international cooperation in the protection of the marine environment on the example of the Finnish Bay as a Baltic Sea region within the framework of the EU macro-regional strategy for this region.

At the TASS press agency (St. Petersburg) well-known scientists from the Russian State Hydrometeorological University and Institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) presented on January 10, 2019, the results of the first study of microplastic particles entering the aquatic environment and bottom sediments on the shores of the Gulf of Finland and the Neva Bay, and also Lake Ladoga.

In the summer of 2018, scientists from the Institute of Lake Science of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Hydrometeorological University tested water and bottom sediments on the shores of the Gulf of Finland and the Neva Bay for the presence of microplastic and other larger debris. They came to alarming conclusions. Every year, about 1,500 tons of plastic garbage gets into the water from St. Petersburg alone. Plastic does not decompose, but disintegrates in the natural environment into microscopic particles.

It turned out that each liter of water from Lake Ladoga and its tributaries contains one particle of microplastic from one micron to five millimeters in size. Particles smaller than one micron in size have not been investigated, as this is too expensive. But the suggestion is that the concentration of such particles is much higher. And it is these particles that most likely do not linger in the Vodokanal treatment facilities and end up in the tap water that St. Petersburg residents drink.

Scientists have identified the main sources of microplastic: cosmetics, detergents and cleaning products, which are made with plastic micro-additives to reduce the cost – this is the primary source of microplastic, and the secondary – the result of the decomposition of plastic products: bottles, bags. But there are also residues from fishing net or remnants of clothing fibers.

Director of the Institute of Lake Science, RAS, Shamil Pozdnyakov, noted that decomposing bags cause even more damage: natural glue, which glued parts of bags, for example, starch, quickly decomposes, and the bag breaks down even faster into small fractions, becoming a source of microplastics.

In addition to the water arteries, samples were taken from the beaches of the northern capital, not only ofmicroparticles, but also of meso- and macrogarbage. It was established that there are strong differences in the accumulation of debris on the northern and southern coasts, whether it is plastic, glass, rusty metal and so on. Plastic was found more on the north coast of the Neva Bay, which is the main problem.  The first studies not only collected data on the pollution of beaches and the aquatic environment of the Gulf of Finland and the Neva Bay, but also on the sources of plastic waste and hot spots of accumulation of marine debris on the northern and southern coasts. And they looked at the distribution as a function of the exposure of the coast, from the distance from the mouth of the river Neva, as well as of other features of the coast.

It was noted that there are still no standardized international methodologies for studying the problem of marine litter and plastic pollution in particular. Sampling methods and their analysis must of course use international experience, but then adapt it to the regional characteristics of the Gulf of Finland. Many of the data were collected in the first marine litter survey on the coasts of this region, conducted in 2018 by university staff in the framework of the International project Baltic Litter Rim (project partners: PP Shirshov Institute of Oceanology (Kaliningrad), Baltic Sea Research Institute in Warnemünde, Germany and the University of Tartu, Estonia).

The study will be completed at the end of this year, and will lead to recommendations to the city government, including how to better monitor comprehensively marine litter of the Neva Bay and the eastern part of the Gulf of Finland in order to maintain a favorable environmental situation in the area of St. Petersburg. But more should be done than only talking of separate collection of plastic waste, though it is of course better to recycle more plastic instead of dumping it in e.g. landfills.

For St. Petersburg, the issue of plastic pollution is particularly relevant. According to the head of the water resources department of the city committee for nature management, environmental protection and environmental safety, Mikhail Strakhov, this is due to the geographical location of the city and its population – there are more than a thousand water bodies within St. Petersburg.

Experts emphasize that plastic pollution of the marine environment is a global problem. Approaches to its solution are still being developed; in particular, the possibility of refitting treatment facilities with the latest nanosystems is being studied. But abandoning plastic would be better. That is what the European Union is in the process of doing. Of course there are economic consequences. Retailers don’t mind switching to e.g. paper. The director of the NPF “Leningrad Printing Plant”, Alexey Nikiforov says that in recent times large retail chains have been willingly switching from plastic to paper packaging – this favorably affects their image in terms of environmental concerns. But it will affect the market for packaging: at least 2000 tons of various plastic packaging products are sold monthly in St. Petersburg which at a price of an average of 200 rubles per kilo represents a business sector of almost 5 billion rubles (65 million €).

Microplastics are dangerous…..

Not all environmentalists believe that plastic is uniquely harmful to the environment. There are at least two very different positions on this issue. The first was described by an expert of the Institute of Oceanology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Irina Chubarenko.

From the 300 thousand tons of plastic which humanity produces annually only 3-5 percent is normally disposed of. The rest is either still in use or in the environment. If the discarded plastic enters the ocean or soil where there is no sunlight, it remains intact for 300-500 years. By ultraviolet radiation it disintegrates, but to the smallest particles it remains plastic.

“So far the role of this pollutant is poorly understood by scientists. It seems to be inert and does not react with anything, but it can give to the environment additives that were introduced into it at the production stage. Also, if you throw a bag on the beach, it turns into an excellent means of transportation for microorganisms. They multiply on it; they can travel, for example, from us to Africa and back, transferring alien species of microorganisms on their rough surface to new habitats. Some of them may begin to dominate in new ecosystems, and this is quite a serious problem.”

In addition, plastic microparticles end up in the stomachs of fish and birds, and when we eat for example fish we don’t think about how many microparticles of plastics and industrial additives used in them enter our bodies. And islands of plastic garbage are growing in the oceans because of the long lifetime of plastic.

….Or are they?

But there is another point of view, which is expressed by no less respected scientists, such as Yury Shevchuk, the head of the North-West Public Ecological Organization Green Cross.

“That which does not decompose is not harmful. Harmful substances are released just by decomposition. And in his opinion it is true that the EU announced measures to combat plastic, declared its readiness to legally prohibit 10 categories of plastic goods, impose a tax on plastic bags and organize recycling of 95 percent of plastic bottles, but it is not clear whether his will be globally accepted. “

And experts note that the effect of microplastics on the human body is also not fully understood. Research needs to continue. According to the results of the project, recommendations will be developed on how to properly monitor and investigate pollution.

It may be good to add here the concluding summary of a report of SAPEA of January 2019. SAPEA which stands for Science Advice for Policy from European Academies, is part of the Science Advisory Mechanism the European Commission has set up. This what they say, and the report was widely praised at a session at this year’s AAAS general meeting in Washington DC mid-February.

“According to the results of the project, recommendations will be developed on how to properly monitor and investigate pollution. According to the report, the best available evidence suggests that microplastics and nanoplastics do not pose a widespread risk to humans or the environment, except in small pockets. But that evidence is limited, and the situation could change if pollution continues.”

Technical Note
“Sea garbage” – garbage falling into the sea with ships’ waste or brought from land with a river discharge. Marine debris includes all items that are not of natural origin and are not found in the natural environment. Garbage enters the sea, is captured by global ocean currents and forms giant clusters in the oceans (hundreds of square kilometers) – “trash islands”. It is classified by size according to international documents: micro particles <5 mm, meso – 5-25 mm, and macro debris> 25 mm.
The danger is that in the aquatic environment, plastic particles behave like a “sponge”, attracting and “absorbing” organic pollutants and other toxic compounds present in seawater, and transporting them up the food chain (for example, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB, dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene, which is derived from DDT, as well as nonylphenols, which cause endocrine disorders in fish).
According to the latest global studies, microplastic is found in sea salt, drinking water and seafood, and even in the snows of the Alpine highlands.

By Dr. Nelly Didenko, Euroscience Local Section in Russia, St. Petersburg

Featured image credit: Gulf of Finland, port of St. Petersburg
© Maxim Grigoriev / TASS

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