Magnús Jóhannesson is the Council’s designated special coordinator on plastics, marine litter. In this interview, the former Director of the Arctic Council Secretariat speaks about the plastics issue in the Arctic, the Arctic Council’s efforts to tackle the issue and his new role within the Icelandic Chairmanship team.

To what extent is plastics an issue in the Arctic?

We have seen marine litter and particular plastics in the Arctic for many years. We have seen how mammals, birds and other animals have been affected and killed by plastics. And the issue is growing in the high North as everywhere else in the world. What we do not know is the exact extent and impact of the plastics issue in the Arctic. So, what we want to do, is to investigate the impact of marine plastics in the Arctic and to develop measures that will reduce the presence of plastics in the Arctic marine region in future.

On what levels can the Arctic Council act on the issue?

We have several projects within our Working Groups that are looking at plastics in different ways, for example at waste management and at monitoring the presence of plastics and its impact. We are also looking at broad measures that we could undertake to reduce the discharge of plastics into the marine environment. Our aim is to have a comprehensive regional action plan addressing the issue in the Arctic towards the end of the Icelandic Chairmanship.

Plastic is a global issue. How do you see the Arctic Council cooperating with for example Observers and international organizations?

Plastic in the oceans is moving around between different regions and there are indications that a big part of the plastic that we find in the Arctic today is coming from outside. That is why it is important that we work closely with the Observers as well. Everyone is having great concerns about plastics in the environment and we want to learn what others are doing – to see if we can apply good practices from other regions to the Arctic. And hopefully we can also develop some initiatives that can be useful beyond the Arctic.

You have been assigned the role as Special Coordinator on Plastics, Marine Litter at the Arctic Council. Could you describe your role?

Five out of six Working Groups have projects that look at the plastics issue from different angles. My role will be to follow their work, ensure that their efforts are coordinated and see if there are any gaps that we need to address. I will also engage with the Observers and the private sector, seeing if there are any innovative developments that we can take advantage of and to bring to the Council for consideration.

Iceland will host an International Symposium on the Threat of Plastics in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Marine Environment. Could you tell us something about this symposium?

As I mentioned earlier, our knowledge of plastics in the Arctic is limited. So very early on in our preparation of the Icelandic Chairmanship, we wanted to ensure that we could bring together experts in this field in order to get the best available knowledge on the issue in place. We are hoping that the symposium on plastics will gather new and emerging knowledge and evidence that can help us prepare the regional action plan for the Arctic and make it more relevant and successful.