Plastic in the Arctic: Looking back at Reykjavík 2023 | Polarjournal
The latest findings and strategies to combat plastic pollution in the Arctic were discussed in various panels. (Photo: Julia Hager)

The second International Symposium on Plastic in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic in Reykjavík showed important successes in the fight against plastic pollution in the Arctic, but also revealed where urgent research and action is needed.

Just a few days after the third round of negotiations of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC3) on the way to a binding global treaty to curb plastic pollution ended in Nairobi, Kenya, the International Symposium on Plastics in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic took place for the second time in Iceland’s capital Reykjavík.

Around 120 scientists, young researchers, representatives of indigenous and local communities, policy makers, stakeholders and others met on 22 and 23 November 2023 at Reykjavík’s conference centre and concert hall, Harpa, to discuss the current situation, research methods, sources and transport routes, impacts, solutions and strategies in the fight against plastic pollution.

“We are very pleased with the symposium. We had a lot of very interesting presentations, new studies on the problem. It’s clearly that there’s an increasing focus on microplastics and we had many presentations on that issue,” Magnús Jóhannesson, Chair of the symposium’s Scientific Steering Committee, told PolarJournal.

The two-day symposium featured 66 short presentations, discussion rounds on the topics and summaries in plenary sessions. The spectrum of short presentations ranged from subarctic fin whales as bioindicators for plastic pollution to a pan-Arctic monitoring program for marine litter and microplastics to the environmental impact of plastics used in dental practices.

The “Throne of Poseidon” in the Anthropocene. (Photo: Julia Hager)

However, two topics stood out on both days: microplastics and fisheries.

Almost a third of the presentations dealt with microplastics: in addition to the development of new methods for the retention of microplastic particles in wastewater treatment plants, new studies showed, among other things, the many ways in which microplastics enter and remain in the Arctic.

Not even the most remote regions of the Arctic can still be described as pristine and unspoilt, as plastic and microplastics in particular are detectable practically everywhere and are probably partly caused by the Arctic communities, which still have no means of disposing of the resulting waste properly.

Fishing has been identified as one of the main causes of plastic pollution in the Arctic Ocean and along its coasts. It contributes to around 30 per cent of the litter washed up on beaches. Damaged segments of nets are often cut out, thrown overboard and drift in the ocean as ghost nets for years and decades. Much smaller, but also a regular find on the coasts, are the so-called cut-offs – pieces of cut nets that are left over from repairs and apparently go overboard when the deck is cleaned.

The marking of nets, as proposed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), was presented as one of the solutions to ghost nets. Accordingly, every fishing gear worldwide should be registered so that it can be clearly assigned to its owner.

In addition, “there’s a need to raise awareness among fishermen to, lets say, train them to do a better job in waste management,” says Magnús Jóhannesson. In line with this, Lise Maria Strømqvist from the Norwegian Center against Marine Litter MARFO and Olav Lekve from the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries opened the symposium with a presentation on how private and commercial fishermen can be persuaded to rethink their practices:

“Are you feeding the plastic monster?”

Coastal clean-up campaigns, which remove tonnes of washed-up evidence of human misconduct in the Arctic every year, were presented as an effective means of raising awareness. Tourists, who usually travel to the Arctic on expedition ships, are also frequently involved in clean-ups. Comprehensive information on plastic pollution in the Arctic is to be made available to them from the upcoming 2024 Arctic season. The AECO (Association of Arctic Cruise Operators), Leeways marine and mountain2ocean in collaboration with PolarJournal have developed a “Marine Litter Toolkit for Arctic Expedition Guides” to strengthen the responsibility of travellers.

The most important messages of the symposium include:

  • Plastic pollution violates human rights, impairs the traditional way of life of indigenous communities and threatens their food security and health.
  • A large amount of data on plastic and microplastic pollution in the Arctic environment is now available from many different regions. However, these are often not directly comparable with each other because different methods were used. In future, the methods used should therefore be harmonised in order to obtain comparable results, not least for argumentation with stakeholders and decision-makers.
  • International cooperation at scientific, economic and political level is urgently needed to effectively stem the plastic flood.
  • Both local and global efforts are required, whereby the knowledge and experience of indigenous and local communities should be incorporated and cultural and social aspects should not be ignored.
  • We will not manage to “recycle our way out” of the plastic crisis. Instead, pollution must be stopped at the source.
  • A legally binding framework, such as the Global Plastics Treaty planned for the end of 2024, is essential to oblige states, industries and businesses to improve practices accordingly and to protect nature and the environment from damage caused by plastic waste.
  • For the development of effective strategies and solutions, it is of great importance that industry representatives, e.g. from the fishing industry, make a constructive contribution at future conferences on curbing plastic pollution in the Arctic.

“What I think is great about the symposium is that it brings together the different stakeholders, it shows some of the methodologies and the solutions for the Arctic. But it also shows there’s a need for global action,” Dr. Thomas Maes, consultant at GRID-Arendal and member of the symposium’s Scientific Steering Committee, told PolarJournal.

In his presentation, Dr Maes provided answers to the question of where all the plastic that enters in the environment ends up: to a large extent in a “plastic cloud” consisting of microplastics in the water column of the global ocean, with the particles sinking very slowly towards the seabed. The equation between the amount of plastic that is released into the environment and the amount that is found in the environment has not worked for a long time.

Kristian Jensen from Lofoten Council, left, and Dr. Thomas Maes from GRID-Arendal. (Photo: Julia Hager)

Kristian Jensen, who is originally from South Greenland and works as a communications advisor at the Lofoten Council in Norway, told PolarJournal: “I think we managed to make the problem much more concrete and we managed to identify the roadmap needed for solving this problem. And there’s a slight glim of hope because so much of the academic contributions to this symposium has been at a level that has to incur change in politics and a more bright and optimistic future if we work together. I think the key here is global collaboration. And I’m glad I’ve been here and put a little bit of focus on the issues connected with the Arctic peoples and how that plastic problem is actually a human rights problem for the Inuit of the north.”

In the penultimate part of the symposium, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, Icelandic Minister for the Environment, Energy and Climate, and Malcolm Noonan, Irish Minister of State at the Department of Housing and Local Government, discussed individual and global responsibility and the challenges posed by plastic pollution and the threat to biodiversity. The ministers emphasized the need for political decisions.

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdóttir. (Photo: Julia Hager)

The address by the Icelandic Prime Minister concluded the symposium: Katrín Jakobsdóttir praised the latest global negotiations on combating plastic pollution as giving hope and expressed her confidence that by the 3rd symposium in two years’ time, successes can already be achieved that result from the research results and findings to date, supported by political willingness to act. Acting now and preventing further effects would be less costly than waiting and doing nothing.

Looking ahead to the next symposium in 2025, Magnús Jóhannesson added: “We need more studies on the social and economic impacts of plastics in the oceans. It would be nice to see some studies on these at the next symposium.”

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link to the symposium website:

The short presentations are publicly accessible and can be viewed at, each below the name of the speaker.

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