Old fishing nets pose a significant environmental problem. Photo: Thinkstock

Trashing the ocean

Opinion published 22.06.16

Marine debris has become a big problem. But plastic and old fishing nets can be turned into a resource rather than being an environmental hazard.

MARINE POLLUTION:The ocean is big, the sea is rich, a resource that all nations with a coastline and marine and maritime traditions share. But almost all of us treat the ocean badly.

5 June was World Environment Day. It may be a good time to settle accounts. How big a footprint are we leaving? How do we affect the air, water and soil? How can we cooperate and use our knowledge to turn a problem into a resource?

Marine pollution is a global problem. About 8 million tons of plastic trash is discarded into our oceans and lakes annually. In addition to soiled beaches and bays, the trash also has a dramatic impact on marine wildlife.

Forlatte fiskeredskaper kan drepe i mange år. Foto: Thinkstock

Abandoned fishing gear remains a killer for many years. Photo: Thinkstock

Debris dumping is estimated to kill over 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds each year. (Source: Circularocean.eu)

If the current trend continues, it is estimated that by 2025 one ton of plastic will be floating in the oceans for every three tons of fish harvested. For this reason, the EU has started a project – Circular Ocean – to reduce pollution and generate new sustainable activities.

Launched in Greenland

Norway and NTNU are part of this project, which was recently launched in Greenland.

I had never been to Greenland before, and I was impressed when I came to the world’s largest island. Greenland’s economy is based largely on fishing. Cod used to dominate the fishing industry, but now shrimps are the mainstay, in addition to halibut, seals and whales. The significance of the fisheries is clear to anyone who goes ashore in Greenland’s ports.

Heaps of old nets

Plastic, ropes and discarded fishing nets met us in all the ports we visited. We know that the ocean is full of the them, too. Widespread ghost fishing is happening in many areas of the ocean. Why?

Konsekvensene for livet i havet kan være store. Foto: Thinkstock

The consequences for sea life can be huge. Photo: Thinkstock

The answers are many and complex. It may, as the title indicates, be about a lack of culture. But first and foremost I think it’s about a lack of understanding and inadequate strategies. There’s no plan of action for what one can do with old fishing nets. No system exists to reclaim them, and no one has given any thought to the possibility that the nets may still be a resource.

Broad cooperation

A research institute in Thurso in Northern Scotland is leading the project. It will join the Arctic Technology Centre in Greenland and universities in Norway, Iceland, Ireland and England to launch Circular Ocean.

The project aims to find innovative and sustainable solutions for collecting and reusing marine plastic waste. The goal is to turn waste into a resource and a starting point for new industries in sparsely populated areas. We want to inspire start-up entrepreneurs and established businesses to dive into developing profitable and sustainable recycling projects. We’re talking about reusing these materials in ways that haven’t happened before – and we have massive university backing.

New mindset

Norway is seen as pioneering in many ways. We have systems for reporting lost tools, but no good recycling schemes for used nets. We’re treating them like trash instead of a future resource, and that’s why we have heaps of nets and plastic in our harbours and inlets. For a green shift to happen in our world, we need environmental awareness to increase. And if we also manage to throw some light on the great opportunities that lie in recycling, we’ll be on the way to the core purpose of the Circular Ocean project.

NTNU’s and my task in the project is to contribute analysis data. We’ll be doing the economic, environmental and social analyses. The purpose is to establish baseline information and use this documentation to examine various sustainable business opportunities.

Greier vi å se på dette som en ressurs? Foto: Thinkstock

Are we looking at this as a resource? Photo: Thinkstock

This is part of the objective of the circular economy that can contribute to the green shift. How can plastic and nets be repurposed? Skateboards? Tubing? Kids’ toys? Inputs for the aquaculture industry? Fish crates, rainwear or beach balls? No doubt the possibilities extend beyond the ones I’ve listed here.

The project will run for three years – until the end of 2018. The next scrap collection effort will be in Ålesund on 1 and 2 September. Then we’ll explore what opportunities are there and see what it takes to get a positive trend going. We’re working toward a change of attitude that makes delivering discarded nets to an approved facility the obvious and easy action to take, and then ensuring that they’re properly dealt with from there.

The project will assist in several phases. First, collecting old fishing nets; second, cleaning, selecting and dismantling the nets. Then comes reprocessing the material and developing new products.

We need all the good ideas we can get. Maybe you’re an entrepreneur at heart. If your dream is about recycled plastic or old fishing nets, contact [email protected].

We look forward to seeing how this project unfolds.