A Norwegian collaborative project may have cracked the code for cleaning up plastic waste in the ocean quickly and cost-effectively with the help of blockchain technology, ocean plastic certificates and specialised vessels.
“Currently, the only incentive for collecting plastic for recycling is a clear conscience. At the same time, many companies who want to make products from recycled and reused plastic are struggling to access raw materials. It’s difficult to base industrial production on voluntary clean-up,” says Arnstein Eknes.
Eknes is the Business/Segment Director for Special Ships at DNV GL, the world’s leading classification society and certification body. He describes a somewhat paradoxical problem: many people want to clear the oceans of plastic waste and many people could envision paying for ocean plastic that can be recycled into new products, yet there is no good system in place to bring the two groups together.
That is why DNV GL has joined forces with the Norwegian companies Inframar and Empower to provide solutions that could remove many metric tons of plastic litter from the sea and sell it to interested parties.
“In a nutshell, we want to make it easier for those who are willing to pay to collect ocean plastic,” says Eknes.
There are more than a few hurdles to be surmounted when building a robust, comprehensive system to channel global market forces to pay for plastic clean-up.
“The most important elements our project contributes are trust and traceability. To put it baldly, if you pay a company to collect plastic waste from the ocean, it is very easy for them to pick the waste from a landfill, dump it in the ocean, and then sell it as ocean plastic,” says Eknes.
“Traceability is critical in sustainability. This is apparent in the debate on biofuel, for example. If biofuel is produced at the expense of the rainforest it is not sustainable. But these kinds of problems can be avoided with good tracing and certification of products,” he points out.
This is precisely why the collaboration between Inframar, Empower and DNV GL is a match made in heaven for dealing with plastic waste. Inframar operates recovery service vessels that collect, analyse and sort the plastic. Empower develops and operates blockchain-based systems for collection, tracing and sale of plastic. DNV GL, meanwhile, delivers globally recognised certificates based on the chain of custody principle. The certificates are stored in the blockchain and verify the authenticity of the ocean plastic.
“The backbone of the project is digitalising and making available essential data throughout the entire process, from clean-up to sale of ocean plastic.”
“Information on the time and place of the clean-up and the properties of the plastic is encrypted in a blockchain with certificates that contain this key data. This prohibits tampering, so buyers receive a guarantee that they are actually helping to get rid of plastic in the ocean,” Myrer explains.
The combination of Inframar’s clean-up operations, Empower’s tracing solutions and DNV GL’s certificate system makes it possible to encrypt data on origin and quality in the blockchain. This will be attractive to manufacturers seeking to reuse and recycle ocean plastic in their products.
“All of the manufacturers we’ve spoken to, who, for example, use plastic fibre for clothing, fishing nets or other products, are open to using more recycled plastic in their production,” says Myrer.
“Moreover, there will probably be demands to increase the percentage of circular production – both from consumers and the authorities. This type of large-scale project will therefore play a critical role,” he points out.
The plan is to start collection and sales in early 2021. The three partners have done their homework, and there are already several buyers lined up.
“We have several players who are ready to take in large volumes of ocean plastic. In addition, we’ve used a lot of time mapping plastic recycling opportunities in Southeast Asia, where the plastic problem is decidedly the worst,” says Aron Uhre, CEO at Inframar.
All three partners are confident that the project will yield positive results from day one.
“We estimate that we will be able to collect 5 000 metric tons of plastic waste in the course of the first 18 months. This is roughly equivalent to the total annual microplastic emissions from Norwegian cars.”
“The idea is to connect with a large-scale network of manufacturers on land. Then we should be able to deliver 20 000 to 30 000 metric tons from a single ship,” he adds.
Can we really solve the ocean plastic problem by using ocean plastic to make even more plastic products?
According to Eknes, it is not the plastic itself that is the problem, but rather how it is handled.
“The only solution to plastic pollution is to use and throw away less plastic. One aspect of this problem is that the plastic is not part of a controlled system. The entire point of our project is to help to provide better control over plastic waste and thereby channel it into circular production. We therefore need systems that can deliver the plastic to the people who actually want to reuse it,” he says.
Eknes also envisions the project creating positive ripple effects in other parts of the world.
“It’s important to us to create sustainable and circular value creation locally. This project is not intended to primarily benefit its owners in Norway. The reason why there’s so much plastic pollution in Southeast Asia is because the mechanisms for recycling are not good enough. We believe we can play a role in building these mechanisms.”
There is no doubt: we must clear the oceans of plastic waste and we must do it now.
“Even if we were to stop all production of plastic tomorrow, it wouldn’t be enough. We must still pick up the litter that has already ended up in the sea,” concludes Myrer.