It gives me a great pleasure to address this workshop on marine litter at its opening here in Akureyri, which we Icelanders often call “the capital of the North”. That title of course refers to this being the biggest town in the north of Iceland. But it could also be said that this nickname points to the role of Akureyri in Arctic affairs. We have a blossoming cluster of institutions here that deal with Arctic issues, and we are proud to host events such as this one here. Akureyri has a special place in my heart as I spent my high school years here and it is always good to be back. Akureyri is a thriving and lively town with beautiful surroundings, and I am certain that it will provide a good setting for your important discussions. My visit to Akureyri in February, where I was introduced to the green initratives that the mayor represented has inspired me.
Marine litter is an issue that has received increased attention in recent years. I think that it most certainly deserves our full attention, and meaningful action. Most of us have seen ugly pictures and video clips of huge garbage swirls in the Pacific - or of turtles entangled in plastic debris - or of whales and seabirds eating rubbish they mistake for food. They are sad reminders on how our consumption and thoughtlessness affect the marine ecosystem, often thousands of kilometers away from the source of the problems.
These visual impacts are, however, just the tip of the iceberg – or the handle of the plastic bag, to use a different metaphor. Litter gradually breaks down and creates microplastics and other tiny grains, that infiltrate the marine food chain. We do not know well how much harm this can cause in the long term. But we know that this is not good. We may accept that our shrimp sandwich comes in a plastic wrap, but it is less appetising if the shrimp are full of plastic. Marine litter can come back to haunt us in unsuspecting ways.
Scientists have claimed that if we do not act we might see, in terms of weight, more plastic than fish in the oceans by mid-century. This is truly a scary vision. Akureyri does well partly because it is an important centre for fisheries. We want to catch healthy fish in clean waters, not boatfuls of rubbish. A robust marine ecosystem is the basis for wellbeing here in Iceland.
But, what can we do? Iceland is hardly blameless in this regard. We are avid consumers, and the use of plastic has grown in recent years. Plastic packaging use increased by 10% in just two years, from 2014 to 2016. Plastic is of course not all bad. But we overuse it and often discard it without much thought. We need to reduce consumption, and increase reuse and recycling – and at the very least to ensure safe disposal.
We see some signs of changed thinking here. Recycling of plastic is increasing. Jogging while collecting trash – “plogging” as it is called – has become a mini-craze. Agencies and civil society arrange beach cleanings. We have an NGO called the Blue Army, founded by a green-thinking diver, that cleans the coast but also the seafloor. They have now allied with another strong national NGO, Landvernd on this issue, mobilizing hundreds of people in beach clean ups.
I have asked a group of experts to come up with proposals later this year on how we can make more progress to curb plastic pollution. To better involve and ensure political engagement and ownership, parliamentarians will also take part in this work. We need to go to the root of the problem – overconsumption and wastefulness – but also ensure that plastic and other waste moves in closed loop and does not pollute nature. More government resources are going into this field and environmental protection in general.
Where does the Arctic come into this picture? In my opinion it is highly relevant. We see that the world looks with interest to the Arctic and – I sincerely believe this – cares for the Arctic. Many diehard big city-dwellers realize that we need pristine places on our planet, unsullied by pollution and waste. If the Arctic is threatened, then Earth is in trouble.
When harmful pollutants were found to be a problem in the Arctic, the world reacted. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was clearly inspired by findings of POPs in the Arctic. The rapid warming of the Arctic has helped to convince many of the need to control emissions of greenhouse gases. When the Arctic speaks, the world listens. Who gives the Arctic a voice? Scientists do. The inhabitants of the High North do. You do. I do.
So, I warmly welcome this workshop and its aim to improve our knowledge and guide our actions with regard to marine litter and microplastics. I see that you have a substantial agenda and will discuss all major aspects of the issue. I think we have participants from around 15 countries here, which is important. We need international cooperation. We need worldwide action, and we need to assist countries that have the least means. The Arctic Council, with its member states and observers, can be an important voice in the global discussion on marine litter and microplastics.
Dear workshop guests,
I want to thank the PAME Secretariat for convening this workshop and Akureyri Municipality for supplying this nice venue and for their good support. I wish you success in your work, which is in line with the priorities of the upcoming Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. I hope that during our Chairmanship we will get a clearer picture of the problem of marine litter and microplastic in the Arctic, as well as recommendations for action. We need clean seas and a healthy Arctic and a sustainable future. Thanks for your effort in this good fight. I am very much against war, but this one we need to win, battle by battle. Good luck to us all. Enjoy your stay here and may your session be productive and fruitful.