According to the World Economic Forum over eight million tons of plastic end up as waste in our oceans each year. Some of it can be found on the beaches of Iceland. It has been like this for decades — and in May 2020 journalist, author and life time chess aficionado, Hrafn Jökulsson (b. 1965), decided to do something about it. He had had enough of words — now he wanted action.
A WEBDOK by SØREN K. KLØFT — email@example.com (text, photos & videos)
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In Iceland almost everything outside the capital of Reykjavík might be considered ‘remote’ or ‘isolated’.
After having travelled for more than five hours by car from Reykjavík — of which two hours were on narrow and not always too decent gravel roads — and having crossed a snow-covered mountain pass, I understand that I have indeed reached an isolated part of the country.
And truely, it is remote — but only to me, because I am now in the small municipality of Árneshreppur with less than 50 residing souls, officially, and to the inhabitants of the small settlements scattered around this particular area, this is their world. And from their vantage point here in the North, the capital of Iceland seems in fact a ‘remote’ place, too.
NORÐURFJÖRÐUR — where the road ends
“We got everything here”, Hrafn Jökulsson exclaims when I meet him for the first time in Norðurfjörður, one of the small settlements in the area.
And indeed he is right — here is a habour, fishing boats, a handful of farms, a small convenience store, a guesthouse, several churches, a self-serviced petrol stand and a nice geothermal swimming pool dating back to the 1950s.
Not to mention the breathtaking landscape surrounding us on all sides, the numeros grey seals resting on the rocks in the fjord, and the cold arctic wind blowing relentlessly through the Western Fjords of Iceland.
And yes, Árneshreppur has everything — also the environmental challenges that most parts of the planet are facing right now. In Árneshreppur we are — among other things — talking about huge quantities of plastic waste ending up on the beaches.
Hrafn Jökulsson has many happy childhood memories from this area, and when he returned to the region in the beginning of May 2020 and saw which state the local beaches were in, he decided to change his life and dedicate all his time and energy the next four years to one thing: To clean the beaches.
But the time and energy of just one person is rarely enough to change the world and therefore Hrafn Jökulsson has teamed up with the Icelandic NGO Worldwide Friends which has a well organized volunteer programme.
This means that Mr. Jökulsson is never alone when he adamantly and seemingly unexhaustable goes to work on the beaches.
REYKJANES BEACH — a world of plastic and driftwood
Next morning we are standing on the Reykjanes Beach a 15 minute drive from our lodging site. Before us is a relativly short stretch of beach. And a day’s work — easily.
Today’s team consists of young and eager volunteers from Guatemala, Italy, Greece, Romania and Germany. Some of them have been in Iceland for several months, others have just arrived.
They all share an admirable amount of energy, and this is exactly what Hrafn needs right now — a lot of eager hands.
They set to work and begin collecting the many different kinds of plastic which are scattered all over the beach — along with large amounts of drift wood.
Hrafn Jökulsson, noticing my eyes darting around the many logs on the beach, explains:
“This wood — some of it of the very finest quality, by the way — originates mostly from the rivers of Siberia in Russia. It is a ‘waste product’ of the Russian wood industry. It was simply lost in the process of being transported down the long Russian rivers in the north. The sea currents carried it onwards and some of it ended up here”, he says as he studies the wood under his feet.
But one thing is wood which is after all a product of nature. Another thing is the main reason for their efforts on the beach — the vast amount of general waste.
Plastic boxes and containers of all sizes and colours, fishing gear, shoes, nylon materials, fishing tackle and fishing nets, bouys, toys, footballs, plastic cartridges — some not even used! And perhaps the most disturbing thing of all: Endless numbers of small pieces of plastic.
And we have not even begun to look for the microplastics yet.
It is all here and the eager hands of the day collect as much as possible in big plastic waste bags for later removal from the beach.
“And this — I guess — must be from your country”, Hrafn says in a trumphant tone of voice as he holds up a plastic box with the inscription ‘Skagen’ on the side.
No doubt, this box originates from a Danish fishing village — over 2.000 kilometers away. I sigh —in the end we are all sinners in this big game.
After some intense hours on the beach all the waste bags with ‘today’s treasures‘, as Mr. Jökulsson likes to call them, are transported manually up the mountain slope and loaded onto a waiting transporter.
They leave a lot of waste behind, though. There is too much for one day’s work. They will have to return to the beach again on another ocassion.
KOLGRAFARVÍK BEACH — more waste and more wood
Next day’s work starts shortly after 9 AM on another beach in Kolgrafarvík.
This time the work is already half done, because the hard working team has already been on the spot earlier this week, and most of the waste is already piled up, sorted out and almost ready to load unto a tractor.
Today’s biggest challenge is mainly that the acces to the beach is difficult and that all the waste has to be loaded unto the tractor before it can be finally accomodated in the waiting lorry on the main road almost a kilometer up the slope.
However, again it is quite conspicuous how much driftwood we find on this beach — and I make Mr. Jökulsson elaborate a little more on the subject for me:
“Historically the local community soon learned to benefit from this fine driftwood “, he explains. “They used it for buliding houses, for fire wood and simply for decoration. Later — when the depopulation process practically emptied the valleys around us — nobody found it worthwhile using the wood for anything, and for many years it has been accumulating along the coast line”.
But the wood is not the main concern today. It is — among other things — the numerous multi-coloured plastic fishing bouys which are loaded unto the tractor wagon as though we were talking about the final match in a volleyball tournament. Yiihaa!
Less than three hours’ work later the last fishing bouy is in place in the lorry that is destined to leave for Reykjavík the next day. Hrafn Jökulssom explains:
“We want to make an exhibition in the capital to show people what this is in fact all about”.
I agree. One thing is to understand the problem. Another thing is to actually see it there in front of your very eyes. Piling up — uncontrollably.
“I have another team of volunteers helping me out with that part of the project in a warehouse in the habour of Reykajvík, and that’s were the lorry is headed tomorrow. See you there!”, he shouts enthusiastically.
REYKJAVÍK HABOUR — the sorting central
A scent of salt water, old sea weed and rusted iron materials meets me a couple of days later when I greet Mr. Jökulsson again in an old warehouse in the habour area in downtown Reykjavík.
We are in the building where the grand waste exhibition will be put together, where all the waste will be put on display and made accessible to the public a couple of weeks later.
Today the old warehouse storage room is also hosting a makeshift office of the administration of Worldwide Friends, manned by Elena Sofia Ferrari from Italy and Sebastian Diaz-Duran from Guatemala.
A group of volunteers is busy sorting the waste in different categories; red plastic, green platic, yellow plastic, white plastic, nylon rope, fishing gear, metal bouys, plastic bouys, shoes, boots, animal bones, toys, life bouys, etc.
At first glance it looks like a tedious proces, but no, the volunteers — this time a mix of Italians and Czechs— are working eagerly and in high spirits.
And as soon as one big plastic bag has been sorted out, another one is brought on the table before the trained hands and eyes of the worldwide friends:
— “Oh look! A piece of a doll’s foot!”
While I enjoy a cup of freshly brewed and very tasty Haitian coffee, Hrafn shows me an old and very worn out life saver ring:
“Look, we found this from the Titanic!” — and seeing the doubtful expression on my face, he adds quickly with a smile: “Prove me wrong!”
“And this might be a dinosaur bone!”, he goes on, holding a small strangely shaped animal bone in his hand while examining it thoroughly.
I understand that this is actually a game designed to partly keep up the spirit in the ongoing work, partly a product of Mr. Jökulsson’s vivid imagination and creative thinking which seems to have been his mental fuel all his life.
It is hard not to play along — well, when you stop believing, you might just as well stop living. I decide to play along, and I spend some time imaging the orgins of all this waste.
Some might have been thrown away deliberately, other things might have been lost by accident — or in spectacular shipwrecks in the middle of merciless ocean storms. Every object has a story.
“Actually, this room is the former head quarters of our famous chess club, Hrókurinn (‘The Rook’)”, Hrafn Jökulsson explains. “We even won the Icelandic Championship”. His involvement in the chess club in Reykjavík has been a big part of his life for over 20 years.
He was the co-funder of the club, whose activities exented for many years to small communities in Iceland and Greenland. He has left that life behind him now, and his new life as an environmentalist and guardian of the beaches suits him well.
“I won’t accept payment for what I do. As long as I get the volunteers, I need for the beach cleaning, I’m satisfied. It is in fact a marvellous feeling to do something without thinking of money”, he says.
“It is also a great privilige to be outside in Mother Nature accompanied by fantastic people. I’m a very thankful, humble and happy man right now”, he concludes with a smile that goes all the way from his mouth to his intense and intelligent eyes.
In 2007 Hrafn Jökulsson published a book entitled ‘Þar sem vegurinn endar’ (Where The Road Ends). It is partly a portrait of the community of Árnesheppur, partly a collection of reflections on our human existence. Mr. Jökulsson might live where the road ends, but his ability to dream of a better (and cleaner!) world is apparently limitless.
USEFUL LINKS — if you want to know more
© Søren Kristoffer Kløft (freelance writer and photographer) / MMXX — firstname.lastname@example.org — final edition & publication of this webdok (article) consisting of 56 photos and 3 active YouTube-video links. All rights reserved — October 20, 2020.