Reducing harmful plastic pollution

“It is hard to imagine our society without plastic, which has many useful properties. But our throw-away culture has turned plastic into one of our major social challenges.”

UiB Magazine
Linn Merete Brekke Olsen, Remi Aleksander Johnsen and Anders Bjerga aim to enable more successful clean-up operations at sea.
Ole Marius Kvamme, UiB

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So says Linn Merethe Brekke Olsen, a PhD candidate at the K.G. Jebsen Centre for Deep Sea Research at the University of Bergen (UiB). She has been passionate about – and actively working on – the issues surrounding plastic for a long time.

As a result of this interest, she has started the company Bergen Greentech together with Anders Bjerga, who is also a PhD candidate at the K.G. Jebsen Centre, and Remi Aleksander Johnsen, managing director of Salt Pixel, which works closely with the fishing and aquaculture industries. They are developing new technical solutions to map and reduce the amount of plastic and other waste that finds its way into the sea.

Big changes with the plastic whale

Brekke Olsen sees many advantages in plastic; it is inexpensive, easy to shape and weighs less than the materials used previously, such as glass or metal. Food keeps for longer, and its use in aircraft and cars means that they consume less fuel and so emit less greenhouse gases.

“However, our general throw-away culture has turned plastic waste into a big problem. In the future, more plastic will be produced, and inadequate waste management means that even more plastic will end up in the ocean,” she says.

The scale of the problem makes it hard to imagine a satisfactory solution, but Brekke Olsen believes that efforts to improve infrastructure and waste management are crucial areas, in addition to attitude-forming work.

“A lot changed after the ‘plastic whale’ was found near Bergen in 2017. Then we saw great engagement with the issue of plastic waste, including an increase in media exposure and large numbers of clean-up operations along the coast. But the plastic we can see is only a fraction of the whole picture. Most of it is below the ocean surface,” she explains.

Mapping lost equipment

With a view to mapping plastic waste in the ocean, the three founders aim to enable more successful clean-up operations.

Innovation Norway has supported the project with a grant of NOK 100,000 for market analysis, and the founders received positive feedback and support from the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, Deloitte, and players in the aquaculture industry. Bergen Greentech focuses on developing technology that can help to locate lost fishing equipment.

“An estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing equipment are lost in the ocean every year. We also have a big fishing industry in Norway. So we see this area as a good place to start,” say the three founders, adding:

“We are initially developing this technology for crab pots, which pose an extra problem in that the lost equipment is left on the seabed and ‘fishes’ by itself - what they call ghost fishing. This causes great damage to marine life. The technology can also be used on fishing nets and a wide range of other products over time.”

Good support

“With a simple registration system, we will be able to see whether the equipment is in use, in store or lost. The technology could be a great help in clean-up operations, such as the Directorate of Fisheries’ annual raids on lost fishing gear. We hope the technology will lead to better identification of areas where a lot of equipment has been lost, and that these areas can then be prioritised for clearing,” they explain.

Once it has been marked, recovered equipment can be returned to its owner, or recycled. Either way, we know that it isn’t lost at sea. In this way, the technology benefits both the environment and the user.

“The solution will be both simple and inexpensive for the consumer. It is implemented during the actual production of the equipment, and the registration process will be handled automatically using stationary or mobile readers”.

Successful tests

In 2018, two successful tests of the equipment were carried out, where the marking was placed on pots in the Barents Sea in cooperation with the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, and later on the ROV “Ægir 6000”, belonging to the K.G. Jebsen Centre for Deep Sea Research. In this test, the equipment was lowered to a depth of more than 2,000 meters in the Norwegian-Greenland sea.

“We are very pleased with the results of these tests,” say the three, who will be carrying out further tests in collaboration with operators before the production phase begins. Their long-term ambition is to reach a global market.