Soldier for Sustainability

The Blue Army has been cleaning Iceland’s sea and shoreline for over 20 years. Zoë Robert caught up with the organization’s director, Tómas J. Knútsson, by Grófin small boat harbor in Reykjanesbær to find out more.

Environmental organization The Blue Army (Blái herinn) celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Striving to keep Iceland’s ocean and coastline trash-free, director Tómas J. Knútsson has organized over 130 beach and underwater cleanups with more than 2,000 volunteers and 54,000 hours of voluntary service over the years. I met up with Tómas to discuss the Blue Army’s work, the state of Iceland’s environment and the impact of tourism on the country.

What’s the story behind the Blue Army?

I used to be an open water scuba diving instructor and one of the tasks I set for my advanced students was cleaning the harbor here [in Reykjanesbær]. We retrieved all kinds of debris, like old anchors, batteries and oil cans that did not belong there. And not just from this harbor. One day I just decided that enough was enough, that this was not a dump site so I, along with my diving company, started doing shoreline and harbor cleanups. The ocean is the womb of the planet. Plastic is harming the oceans, because there are species that get entangled in the debris; it’s mistaken for food and is consumed by the fish, meaning that it becomes polluted by plastic. This really is an unwritten page because we actually don’t know how long it takes for plastic to break down completely—it could be hundreds of years. Recycling and our way of handling our dump sites was definitely in disorder. Otherwise, why would people drive down to the harbor and throw things into the ocean?

You saw people throwing trash into the ocean?

Yes, there were several spots where people would go and dump trash directly from their vehicles into the ocean. They were, of course, only supposed to dispose of fish waste, but people didn’t care—they threw out everything. There was nothing right about people dumping trash there. But, thankfully, those days are gone.

What kinds of reaction did you get back then?

We got a lot of attention in the early days. It takes a lot of guts to go against the stream and criticize the authorities. Everybody said that I was crazy. But it’s good to be crazy when you have a goal that you’re so passionate about. This is what I wanted to do, though it was a huge task. When foreign divers came to Iceland to dive with me, I took them to dive sites that we had been cleaning, and the shorelines in the vicinity were also being cleaned by the Blue Army. I did this so they would not get a bad impression of the area. People began to realize that that I was serious about this.

How does the state of dive sites in Iceland compare to the other sites around the world where you have dived, in terms of the cleanliness?

We can have an endless discussion about how Iceland is beautiful in so many ways. This harbor here, I drive here every day and make sure that you never see a plastic bag. I just make sure. Silfra [dive site in Þingvellir National Park] is ranked very highly in the world. I’ve had the privilege of being on the front page of Time magazine, and the cover of dozens of dive magazines due to the purity of Icelandic water. I’ve always said: ‘this is the cleanest water on this planet, let’s have all waters as clean.’

How much waste have you collected over the years?

Since 1995, we have taken more than 1,300 metric tons of debris to recycling. We have retrieved about 120 car batteries from the ocean floor. This year, we did about a good mile stretch of cleaning at Selvogur [South Iceland] for three hours and we retrieved eight and a half metric tons of debris. This was such an eye opener for everybody. We plan to open an exhibition with all sorts of things we have collected on the beach to get the message across.

Have you seen any changes in the amount or the types of trash you have been collecting over the years?

The key issue is that there is about one metric ton of debris in every kilometer that I have been cleaning for the last 20 years. It doesn’t seem to be diminishing. There is a law now prohibiting people from throwing trash overboard, so trash from the fishing industry has decreased, but the stuff that is on land and blows into the ocean has increased. People don’t dispose of trash properly.

Where does all come from? Does it originate in Iceland or does it drift here from elsewhere?

Some of it comes from the boats. In areas close to the fishing industry, like in Reykjavík, about 80 percent of the trash is linked to the fishing industry and to marine traffic. In other areas, it’s the opposite: about 80 percent originates from land, from where it blows into the ocean, while 20 percent is related to the fishing industry. A lot of trash also drifts to Iceland with the ocean currents. I’ve found all kinds of fishing industry containers and crates—sometimes just pieces, other times the whole thing—from ten different countries, from Canada, the US, Norway, Morocco, Greenland, Russia and other places. So a lot comes from elsewhere, but in Iceland things end up overboard by accident, or due to bad weather, but there are also irresponsible sailors who still throw things into the ocean.

Do you have a clear idea of what proportion of the trash originates in Iceland and how much is from elsewhere?

We don’t have any figures, no, but I know exactly what type of fishing gear Icelanders use. And when I find a fishing box I know that  it’s Icelandic if  it’s white. But if it’s stamped with ‘Royal Greenland,’ we know it comes from a Greenland trawler. A lot of products are marked.

Have you seen much change in attitude towards the proper disposal of trash and towards your efforts?

Yes. I’ve seen awareness increase greatly. There are people now really concerned about all this plastic in our environment. There are companies participating in a greener, more environmentally-friendly method of working.

You’ve visited over 50 schools to give environmental lectures. What is your main message?

I just want people to be responsible for the things that they buy and ensure that they go into recycling once they’ve been used.

What do you do with all the trash you collect?

Up until now, I’ve been taking it to the recycling companies for sorting and recycling, but we’re not handling plastic properly in Iceland, not allowing it to take on a new life. Some of it is sent abroad, but a lot is also buried in landfill—they call that recycling. We are behind in Iceland. Last year I was upset after collecting five metric tons of debris. We needed to raise awareness about the issue. I was not getting the support I needed. To carry out a clean-up like this, there are a lot of expenses involved. You need to get permission from the community, the landowners; you need transportation, a dump truck, and all this costs money. For example, it would have cost three to four hundred thousand krónur [USD 2,600-3,500] to take five tons of trash to the recycling company, and then a lot just ends up in landfill anyway. I threatened to throw it back into the ocean. There’s no point taking it from the shoreline and putting it through all sorts of processes if it’s just going to end up back in nature, in some landfill. It’s ridiculous. The media took notice and the issue got some good coverage. Now I’ve joined a small group of enthusiastic pioneers who want to skip the traditional way of recycling plastic and nets in Iceland. Instead, we’re going to try to have other products made out of the trash. If you look at plastic, this is a raw material, and it can be washed and processed, and become another product. Anything is better than putting it into landfill. Now we will be working with recycling company Fengur, based in Hveragerði, which focuses on being sustainable and is powered by [geothermal] steam, to process the plastic.

What kinds of products do you have in mind?

People are talking about making thread to produce fleece jackets, pottery, or other everyday items out of recycled fishing nets and plastics. We have to start thinking about sustainability and removing plastic from the environment where it’s damaging the ecosystems.

Recycling is one thing but what about reducing waste in the first place?

Well, the key issue is that the product is not harmful until it leaves you and fails to go into the right recycling process. [Plastic] is actually a great product, but we need to find better ways of dealing with it once we’re finished with it. Of course, we would benefit from having less plastic around. But we can’t blame plastic for everything. We have to blame the person that owns the plastic, while he or she is the owner. We have a responsibility to recycle it, not be irresponsible and just throw it away. We have to allow it to have a second life.

Have you noticed an increase in trash connected to the tourism boom?

We have to take into considerations that in Iceland there are 330,000 people and each person is estimated to produce a certain amount of waste but now, because of tourism, there are around two million people in the country each year. I have walked the fences and the open areas around the airport [in Keflavík], where you pick up and drop off rental cars, and all of the trash that comes out of these cars doesn’t go into recycling bins, it’s thrown out of the cars and gets blown away onto the fences and into these open areas. This has increased big-time. I have been cleaning these areas for 14 years, so I’ve seen the difference.

What is the reason for this? Is it due to a lack of awareness?

Well, there is a lack of bins, that’s for sure. Also, if there would be a trash bag in every car, and the trash bag had to be taken to a recycling bin, and the recycling bin would be emptied more often... It cannot just be left open, full, over the weekend! When there’s a storm, it blows the whole thing away. We have to be much more aware that the load on the environment here is now far greater [than before, because of tourism]. Putting a simple message on garbage bags in rental cars, like ‘I don’t want to end up in the nature you came to see’ would help.

You said that when you started out you were cleaning up dive sites because you didn’t want tourists to get a bad impression of Iceland. Given everything you have just said, how does Iceland fare?

People keep saying all day long: ‘Iceland is clean, Iceland is this, Iceland is that.’ Ninety-five percent of people here really do care, but there are five percent that don’t give a damn and they can ruin a very nice place that is pristine, clear and picture-perfect by throwing a couple of trash bags in that area when we could have plastic-free beaches. Also, there is not enough filtration in the sewer system here. Every hour, we have six million microbeads [solid plastic particles of less than five millimeters] going through the sewer system in Reykjavík into the ocean. These are devastating figures. The sewer cleaning plants in some other Nordic countries are much more sophisticated. We need to be much more aware of the danger of these particles. That is why it is important to clean it out of the shorelines before it breaks down there and gets into the ecosystem. Tires and asphalt are a great threat. So, what are we going to do? Stop driving cars? You know we just have to be more responsible in filtering and trying to prevent these from getting into the ocean. So I would say that we have to—and this is an urgent call—we have to start behaving much more responsibly than we do.

Photos by Páll Stefánsson.

This article originally appeared in Iceland Review magazine.

Video Gallery

View more videos