Although environmentalists consider Iceland’s coastline to be one of the cleanest in the world, many of our rocky beaches are covered in rainbows of plastic refuse. Bottles, containers and, the worst offenders, plastic bags wedge their way in between the rocks and stay put, potentially for thousands of years. Of course, this is largely invisible in those beautiful overhead landscape photographs of our shores, but even taking a walk on the western-most coast of Reykjavík is a startling and sad sight.
Plastic bags are the target of Plastic Bag Free Saturdays (“Plastpokalaus Laugardagur”), a new initiative that aims to end the use of non-degradable plastic bags altogether. They are approaching this goal by means of an open letter encouraging individuals to stop using plastic bags for one day a week, asking stores not to offer them and appealing to politicians to consider a country-wide ban. It is undersigned by almost thirty names, including many prominent figures like artist Gabríela Friðriksdóttir, musician Páll Óskar, and first lady Dorrit Moussaieff.
Should their latter plea come to pass, Iceland would join the 40% of the world’s population currently living in areas where plastic bag consumption has been restricted or banned. As things are, Icelanders consume over 50 million single-use, non-degradable plastic bags every year, which take 215,000 gallons of oil to produce and cost 3.2 billion ISK in foreign currency to import in 2012 alone. Most of these bags were used for a grand total of twenty minutes before being tossed into the circle of garbage life. The problem is that their lifespan can be hundreds of thousands of years.
“Plastic bags go everywhere. They fly around, get caught in nature, float into our oceans and gather on our coasts,” says Tristan Gribbin, one of the initiative’s founders. “They poison the fish in our waters, which we end up consuming or exporting.” Considering that fishing is Iceland’s strongest industry and accounts for a quarter of the country’s exports, this could have serious implications.
According to the article ‘Plastic Pollution’ by Claire Le Guern Lytle on CoastalCare.com, studies by Japanese chemist Katsuhiko Saido revealed that plastic products release the toxic substances bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer into seawater, which metabolise in the body after ingestion. This poses a great risk to marine life, and perhaps subsequently to humans who consume them. The accumulation of non-degradable plastic waste in the oceans has also created many garbage patches, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which trap marine animals and permanently contaminate ecosystems. Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2010 documentary, ‘Force Of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie,’ deals in part with the efforts to rid the oceans of plastic waste and the irreversible damage that has already occurred.
Nothing is hopeless, though. The Plastic Bag Free Saturday group is hoping to begin making changes at home on a grassroots level, by spreading the word through social media and their website, plastpokalaus.com. Four of its members, Björg Ingadóttir, Dísa Anderiman, Ásta Hauksdóttir and Tristan Gribbin, held a press conference at Harpa on August 27 to raise awareness of the cause and boost people up to take action starting immediately.
“If everyone took their own bags to the store on Saturdays then stores would not sell any and they would have no use to offer them,” Björg says. Alternative solutions to plastic bags include using cloth totes, which are cheaply available or easily made at home with a few fabric scraps, and other re-usable bags. Some stores, like Bónus and Ikea, already sell their own re-usable shopping bags made from sturdy, recycled material.
The members are not entirely anti-plastic bag, however, as long as they are being re-purposed and not contributing to further waste. “If people have a bunch of plastic bags at home and they just bring a few of those to the store, that is great too,” Tristan says. “We just want to see people recycling. It is about sustainability and waste reduction, in the end, in whatever form it takes.” Helping to reduce plastic bag waste can also mean switching to using biodegradable cornstarch-based bags (“maíspokar”) as trash-bin liners, which altogether eliminates any lingering need to ask for plastic bags at the store.
So what to do with that drawer stuffed to the brim full of plastic bags in your kitchen? Those can be packed into some reusable bags and hauled over to any of the Sorpa waste-management and recycling drop off centres. The closest one to downtown is at Grandi, on the western-most coast of Reykjavík. A walk on that litter-ridden shore quiets any doubt that plastic pollution is indeed a very local problem.