Millions of metric tons of plastic litter threaten both marine ecosystems and those dependent on the oceans for their livelihood. Norwegian companies are working intensively to address this tremendous environmental challenge. And they have already come up with some solutions, from biodegradable fishing nets to climate-friendly fuel made from discarded plastic.
Plastic is extremely durable, highly flexible and inexpensive to produce. Unfortunately, it is terribly detrimental to the environment. In fact, we use so much plastic that a shocking 12 million metric tons ends up in the ocean each year. Once there, it breaks down into microplastics that find their way into fish stomachs and bird nests, accumulating in the marine food chain.
How can we prevent plastic pollution from destroying vulnerable marine ecosystems? This is a pressing problem for Norway, whose inhabitants have earned their livelihood from the sea since prehistoric times. That is why Norwegian companies and research institutions – which have been leaders in the offshore, shipping, fisheries and aquaculture industries for decades – are investing major resources in reducing marine plastic debris.
Focusing on materials, cleaning technology, reuse and changing the value chain, Norwegian companies have come far in developing solutions and technology that can help to make the world’s oceans cleaner. Here are some examples.
Using offshore technology to collect marine litter
It is imperative to find effective ways of removing plastic that is about to cause irreparable damage to the marine environment. Ideally plastic debris should be picked up before it sinks to the seabed or before weather, wind and sun break it down into microplastics.
Microplastics are extremely small plastic fragments or particles resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste and which end up in the food chain.
Collecting floating litter is much more complicated than collecting litter on land. Norway, however, has world-leading expertise in constructing and operating installations in harsh offshore conditions. Companies are building on this expertise to devise effective solutions for collecting plastic debris from the water’s surface.
The company SpillTech, for example, is a specialist in oil spill response systems. It has used its knowledge of oil skimming technology to develop the PortBin solution for collecting floating waste. The device, which is submerged in the water, resembles a waste basket with holes. With the help of a propeller at the bottom, the basket sucks in surface water and large and small plastic debris. The water is drained away, leaving the basket filled with waste which is easily emptied into a container. The PortBin can withstand rough weather and crashing waves, and requires minimal infrastructure.
Clean Sea Solutions, meanwhile, has developed the Clean Sea Robot. This autonomous, electric, aqua drone “sweeps up” plastic trash from the ocean surface with the help of computer vision and remote sensing. The collected trash is stored on board, and when the device is full, it returns to a dedicated docking station to be emptied and recharged for the next mission. The company is also developing a model that can function below the surface.
The PortBin from SpillTech collects floating waste.
Cutting emissions by recycling plastic waste
The problem with plastic is that it is extremely simple and inexpensive to produce, making it far too easy to throw away plastic products and packaging after a single use. But what if we could give plastic waste a new life? Devising new, useful applications will create incentives for people to hold onto used plastic instead of dumping it – and keeping it from ultimately ending up in the sea.
This is the win-win-win approach that Quantafuel is taking. The company has developed a method for converting plastic waste into Recycled Carbon Fuels. Based on the RSB Standard for Advanced Fuels, Quantafuel’s diesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent compared to conventional fossil fuels. Thus Quantafuel’s technology reduces both plastic pollution and harmful emissions.
Nofir is another Norwegian company working to kill two birds with one stone. Nofir has developed a system for large-scale collection of plastic waste in the form of fishing nets and ropes, and promotes new ways of recycling it. Each year Nofir’s system collects some 7 000 metric tons of raw material for recycling. Among other products, this plastic is used to manufacture ECONYL®, a strong nylon yarn that can be used in clothing, carpets and other textiles. This way, Nofir helps to reduce pollution from textile manufacturing as well as marine litter.
Nofir has developed a large-scale system for collecting plastic fishing nets and ropes for recycling.
The European Commission has set a target for total reuse/recycling of waste materials of 65 per cent by 2035. The positive environmental impacts of this will be twofold: fewer resources will be used to manufacture products and waste will be reduced dramatically. To achieve this target, companies and manufacturers must take an entirely different approach to material choice and design – a life cycle approach. One aspect of this is increased focus on reuse. Much can be learned from Norway here.
Norway is a champion when it comes to returning plastic bottles. An impressive 95 per cent of all plastic bottles are returned via a national bottle deposit scheme. The advantages are obvious: the more plastic waste that is collected and recycled, the less will end up in nature.
Inspired by the Norwegian bottle return success, Empower has devised a system which allows people to exchange plastic waste for tokens at certified recycling stations. The system is now in place in several countries, including India, Libya and Sri Lanka. In addition to reducing plastic pollution, it helps to combat poverty by providing an economic incentive for people to collect and deliver plastic waste.
Norwegian companies Tomra and RVM Systems lead the field in terms of the technical solutions for bottle return. Together they have delivered reverse vending machines and related technology to dozens of countries in and outside Europe.
Alternative to plastic fishing nets
In certain areas it is best to replace conventional plastics entirely. Take fishing gear such as nets, ropes and lines, for example. Each year, some 13 000 fishing nets are left or lost at sea. However, these plastic nets do not disappear. They can live on for years as ghost nets, entangling fish and marine mammals.
The researchers at SINTEF Ocean are therefore exploring the use of biodegradable materials in gillnets. The results so far are promising. Although fishing trials have shown somewhat poorer fishing efficiency than traditional nylon gillnets, the environmental benefits are very great.
Find more sustainable ocean solutions from Norway here.
Kjartan Mæstad/Institute of Marine Research
Biodegradable nets could put an end to “ghost fishing”.