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Plogging and Leading by Example: an Interview with the President of Iceland, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson

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If you find yourself traveling the countryside of Iceland, there’s a good chance you might catch sight of President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson taking part in his weekly activity of plogging.

Plogging is a combination of jogging and picking up trash that originated in Sweden in 2016. It has since taken off in popularity across the globe, with local communities forming clubs and even individuals such as Iceland’s Head of State partaking in this meaningful activity.

We were fortunate to sit down with the President of Iceland, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and discuss his motivations for getting involved in plogging, thoughts on leading by example, and advice for others on how to get started plogging.

Small Task, Instant Results

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson started plogging a couple of years ago — a small project he began while jogging near his residence at Bessastaðir. He has participated in numerous plogging events with local clubs in Iceland throughout the years, even joining some ambitious 4th graders recently to help clean up their community.

So, what sparked his motivation to start plogging?

“I can see the result.”

In an influential position such as his – seeing instant results can be few and far between. He emphasizes that the problems of this world are so huge and often seem unsolvable.

“For people in my position, it can be easy to just lose faith. We will definitely not solve it by having one more conference, one more summit. A good way to fight that is to actually do something and see some actual tiny small results.”

Another driving force behind his motivation to go plogging is that leading by example is at the core of who he is. A simple google of ‘plogging in Iceland’ will show you that proof. President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson can be found in an overwhelming number of the photos. He loves to share what he is doing and hopes to inspire others to get involved within their local neighborhoods.

“Don’t be shy to get out there,” he says. “I am honored every day to be able to say to myself, ‘alright, I didn’t solve the problems of the world today, but I did some good.”

Jóhannesson describes that his initial motivations soon transformed into an enjoyable obsession. Even joking that when driving in the car and spotting a lone soda can on the side of the road – it makes him want to hop out and instantly pick it up.

Despite his dedication and passion for plogging, he humbly jokes,

“I would never describe myself as a top plogger here in Iceland – there are so many other individuals who are more devoted than I am.”

He sees his weekly plogging task as something easy and manageable that he can do and modestly says that he is “just a person trying to do some good in this world.”

Turning Smallness into Strength

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson has often described Iceland as punching above its weight in world affairs.

The country has been a leader in the renewable energy industry for decades, with geothermal and hydropower producing 99% of the entire country’s energy. This past year, Iceland took another giant stride on the environmental front by implementing a ban on single-use plastic bags.

“The moment we start proclaiming that we are better than the rest, it would be easy to find faults on our home front. Let’s just lead by example. There is still work to be done here,” Jóhannesson says.

Making time to go plogging each week is yet another example of how President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, a committed and charismatic leader, can inspire the residents and visitors of his country to get involved.

Looking Ahead: Tourism and Volunteering in Iceland

As the world begins to open again, Iceland is excited to be welcoming tourists back. Jóhannesson explains that during the COVID-19 pandemic, as tourism all but vanished, Iceland was able to identify popular areas that had become heavily impacted.

“The pandemic has given us time to rethink on that front. Certainly, we want to make sure that the environment does not suffer from people who want to enjoy that environment.”

Despite the lack of international volunteers this year, Icelanders still pulled together to participate in coastal cleanups. With 3088 miles of coastline, it is a daunting and continuous task to keep their beaches and shoreline clean. The country is surrounded by numerous ocean currents that bring trash and plastic pollution to their beautiful fjord shorelines. Jóhannesson explains that since he has started plogging, he thinks about the environmental goals for Iceland in a new light.

“When it comes to thinking about the environment in general – plogging is just one part of that.” He says, “It all connects.”

How To Get Involved in an Iceland Cleanup

There are numerous organizations in Iceland full of passionate and dedicated volunteers that regularly participate in cleanups. President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson commended the efforts of the organization’s Friends of the Earth and Blue Army – both of which have had an incredible and positive impact in Iceland. Over the last 25 years, Blue Army has removed over 3.4 million pounds of trash from Iceland, with an impressive group of 9600 volunteers.

“I want to say a big thank you to all the volunteers who have come from all parts of the world to Iceland – to take part in the cleanup of our coast projects,” says Jóhannesson.

For those interested in connecting and staying involved in local Iceland plogging cleanups, the Facebook group “Plokk á Íslandi” (plogging in Iceland) is a great way to stay up to date. The community of members passionately share their plogging routes and cleanup successes.

Jóhannesson says, “There are many opportunities to help in this sense if you want to.”

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson emphasizes that thanks to the hard work of volunteer organizations and the everyday efforts of the local community,

“We are seeing progress in Iceland – more or less, it’s pretty clean. Still, we won’t solve it by cleaning up constantly whatever is brought to our shores, but it’s one part of our ongoing efforts to make the world a cleaner place and make the environment safer, cleaner, better.”

His final words of advice to others looking to begin the activity of plogging is to start small. Choose a place close to home and bring along a plastic bag on your next walk or jog.

“I can say from my own experience when you set yourself realistic goals – then you’re more likely to continue.” He adds, “I like being able to say that I actually do this stuff – I do my plogging once a week or so, sometimes more, sometimes less, and therefore I feel like I can say to others – it’s so easy, and it’s so much fun.”

So, next time you’re headed out on a walk or jog close to home, bring a bag with you, and you can lead by example in your neighborhood. If you find yourself in Iceland and want to join a local volunteer clean-up, you might be lucky enough to find yourself plogging alongside President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson.