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In October 2019, the Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative and the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute co-hosted a workshop on Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean with the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The event gathered subject matter experts, thought leaders and diverse stakeholders to discuss the issue of marine plastic pollution in the Arctic. The input from the workshop has now been released in a summary report and a set of recommendations, which will feed into the Council’s Regional Action plan on Marine litter in the Arctic. We asked Magnús Jóhannesson, the Council’s designated Special Coordinator on Plastics Pollution and Marine Litter, and Gunn-Britt Retter, Head of Arctic and Environmental Unit at the Saami Council – who both participated in the workshop – to comment on some of the points that the report raises.
Participants of the workshop on Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean (Photo: Benn Craig, Belfer Center)

The report lists recommendations for future research in order to fill critical knowledge gaps. Which of these areas are the Council’s Working Groups already working on?

Magnús Jóhannesson: The report from the Belfer Center workshop lists a number of research gaps and desirable monitoring measures. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme‘s (AMAP) Litter and Monitoring Expert Group is currently developing a comprehensive monitoring program on marine litter and microplastic for the Arctic region. The program will to some extent address all the issues that were identified during the workshop. In that sense, I can confirm that the Arctic Council is working on the report’s recommendations for research and monitoring on plastic litter in regards to developing the monitoring program. However, the implementation of the monitoring program, for example increasing the sampling frequency and widen the geographical coverage, will depend largely on the funding by the Arctic States.

The Caribbean Regional Action Plan shows that a regional action plan only is as effective as local implementation capability and that communities must have buy-in from the beginning. How does the Arctic Council involve local communities and Indigenous peoples in its efforts for developing a Regional Action Plan for the Arctic?

Gunn-Britt Retter: We learnt from the workshop through the example of the Caribbean Regional Action Plan that if a regional plan is to be efficient, the communities and local implementation is essential. The communities that the regional plan affects need to feel ownership to the plan. I think it is also essential to ensure everyone involved has a common understanding and shared definition of the vocabulary used around plastics, so we all know and understand what we are talking about. Another aspect that often comes up when discussing plastics at a local level, is our consumption patterns and traditional products being replaced by plastic products, leading to a disconnection between human and nature and strengthening the use-and-throw-away mentality.

Magnús Jóhannesson: I agree with Gunn-Britt that local communities will play a major role in implementing some of the actions that will be necessary to reduce significantly plastic pollution in the Arctic marine environment from the Arctic States. Since Arctic local communities do not have a direct involvement in the work of the Arctic Council it will be up to the Arctic States to ensure that local communities can engage fully in the efforts agreed to in the regional action plan. Some kind of collaboration with the newly established Arctic Mayors Forum might also help to facilitate the implementation.

Working with industry was mentioned as one key action in order to prevent plastics from entering the environment in the first place. Is the AC engaging with businesses in any way on this issue?

Magnús Jóhannesson: We have already made some contacts with industrial sectors such as marine tourism organizations and fishermen organizations. Arctic fisheries and the growing marine tourism in the Arctic are significant industries that we would very much welcome to be fully engaged in supporting and promoting actions to reduce the plastic pollution in the Arctic marine environment. We are also hoping that the Arctic Economic Council will be able to engage in the Arctic Council agreed actions.

The report outlines eleven strategies that an Arctic Regional Action Plan should include. Do you see all of these reflected in the work leading up to the action plan for the Arctic?

Magnús Jóhannesson: Most of the strategy action recommendations from the Belfer Center report are on the table in the discussion for the development of the regional action plan. It is still too early to see if all of them will be fully reflected in the final product.

Download and read the full Policy and Action on Plastic in the Arctic Ocean – October 2019 Workshop Summary & Recommendations here.