In the same boat – Norway’s plastic waste gets the chop | Polarjournal
Plastic decomposes much slower than the rest of the garbage. Today it is estimated that a PET bottle can take up to 450 years to be crushed by wind and waves. But then, as microplastics, it still poses a threat to our environment. Photo: © Stefan Leimer

It is estimated that there are up to 142 million tonnes of waste in our oceans. Almost 75% of these are plastic. According to projections, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050! And the problem now extends far into the Arctic. In Norway, the NGO in the same Boat has made it its mission to rid Norway’s beaches of plastic.

From jumbo jet pilot to plastic collector… What looks like an uncontrolled crash was a conscious decision in favor of our environment.

Oyvind Olsen went through military training in the Norwegian Air Force as a young man to become a jet pilot. After flying Army jets for 15 years and then training pilots as an instructor in Texas, he moved to the private sector where he flew around the world as a jumbo jet pilot. By this time Oyvind was already living on his sailing boat, the North Eagle, and cruising the Mediterranean. He flew from the nearest airport to his assignments and back to his yacht after work.

After his retirement, his wife Ika and he set off for Norway, where they came into contact with in the same Boat came into contact with This is a Norwegian non-governmental organisation. In the same boat Its goal is to clean up the Norwegian coast of plastic waste within five years. After seeing how littered Norway’s beaches are during their trip along the coast, it was natural for the couple to become actively involved in in the same boat and be part of the solution.

Shallow aluminum boats allow In the same Boat staff to land on even the most remote beaches. The plastic waste is collected at several depots and then brought back by boat to a central collection point. Photo: © Stefan Leimer

In the 1950s, about 1.5 million tons of plastic were produced per year. Today, there are almost 400 million tons and most of it ends up as waste in the sea sooner or later. Current figures suggest that 80 million tonnes of plastic have accumulated in the world’s oceans, with a further 13 million tonnes added each year. Some of it sinks into the depths of the sea and cannot be retrieved from there. Out of sight, out of mind… At least for us humans! This is because plastic waste poses a life-threatening danger to marine life. So-called ghost nets float in the water for years and become a deadly trap for fish, birds and marine mammals. Here are two impressive examples.

When Norwegian researchers discovered a Cuvier’s beaked whale in 2017, they were initially delighted by the sensation. Because this whale species does not often stray into the far north. However, as the animal kept swimming towards land, it eventually had to be euthanized. Then, during the autopsy, the researchers made a frightening discovery. They found 30 plastic bags and lots of microplastics in the whale’s stomach.

In 2019, a young sperm whale was found dead on a beach in northwest Scotland with 100 kilograms of trash in its stomach. According to SMASS (Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme), the young sperm whale had remnants of fishing nets, ropes, bags, packing tape and plastic cups in its stomach. With such a quantity, one must assume that the whale starved to death on a full stomach.

Plastic becomes a deadly trap for birds. They mistakenly think it is food, it is used for nest building, or they get tangled up looking for food and can’t get free. Photo: © Stefan Leimer

The European Commission’s JRC research unit has found that 84 per cent of the rubbish that washes up on European beaches is plastic. About half of them were originally intended for one-time use. According to projections, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050!

Plastic, which has a lower density than water, usually does not sink into the sea, but is transported over longer distances by ocean currents and eventually accumulates in one place. Meanwhile, there are artificial islands made exclusively of plastic waste. The largest of five such marine plastic accumulations is the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) and is located between Hawaii and California. The GPGP is about three times the size of France!

Waste that does not find its way to an artificial island at sea or sinks will sooner or later be washed ashore, where it will accumulate along the coast. Smaller bays are particularly susceptible, where the wind and currents drive the waste in again and again. Over the years, this has led to the creation of veritable rubbish dumps in remote places where civilisation is nowhere to be seen.

No matter where we go for a walk on the beach in Norway, we come across plastic waste everywhere. This is also the case in the picturesque bay of Gryllefjord on the island of Senja, where we meet Oyvind and his wife Ika. With you on board the sailing ship North Eagle are also the two volunteers Sirka from Finland and Ceferano from Argentina.

Collecting plastic is hard work and the four volunteers sweat in their rubberized fishing pants and knee-high rubber boots. Between 150 and 250kg of plastic is collected per person per day, depending on the terrain, weather and type of waste. For practical reasons, only the larger plastic parts are collected. Again and again the knife must be taken to help, because in particular fishing nets and ship ropes get caught between the rocks. If smaller pieces of plastic were also collected, they would not get out of the way. All these small plastic particles will be ground up in the foreseeable future and end up as so-called microplastics in nature, from where they cannot be removed again and partly end up in the food chain.

The picturesque Gryllefjord on the island of Senja is particularly prone to plastic waste. Wind and tide drive the garbage to the end of the bay again and again, where it is deposited for years. Photo: © Stefan Leimer

More than a year ago, in the same Boat published figures concerning the origin of plastic waste along the Norwegian coast. These figures showed that 77 per cent of the waste came from Norwegian sources. The sometimes harsh reaction of the public was astonishing. There was talk of fake news and in the same boat was accused of launching a smear campaign. It was then decided to commission Sentio Research Norge AS to conduct a survey to find out what the Norwegian population knows about littering. Or rather, thinks it knows.

The following figures show how great the discrepancy between facts and alleged knowledge is in some cases:

  • Norway’s coastline is up to 8 times more polluted than the world average, but only 13% think Norway is more polluted than the world average
  • 77% of the waste comes from Norwegian sources, but only 19% believe that most of the waste comes from Norway.
  • Less than 1% of the waste along the Norwegian coast comes from Asia and distant countries. But up to 25% believe that the waste along the Norwegian coast comes from Asia and other countries.
  • Approximately 80% of the litter along the Norwegian coast comes from fishing and aquaculture, but 70% believe that plastic bags and food packaging account for most of the litter.

Collecting plastic seems like the proverbial Sisyphean task, so elaborate, extensive and difficult it is. But In the same boat is not deterred by this. To make the work clearer, the coast of Norway from Stavanger to Kirkenes has been divided into 75 sectors. The goal: 20,000 beaches must be cleared by 2025!

Because of its longevity, plastic is becoming a plague on our planet. Rivers, lakes and oceans in particular are already full of plastic waste. Photo: © Stefan Leimer

Last year, approximately 400 tons of waste were collected and disposed of. The target for the current year is 1,000 tonnes of waste. It costs the equivalent of CHF 1.50 to collect and dispose of one kilogram of plastic waste.

Even if a large part of the plastic comes from the fishing industry, it also includes everything imaginable from our throwaway society. A message in a bottle is also found every now and then. Or a rubber snake, which Ceferano was terrified to discover.

By the way, we meet the rubber snake again in the evening when we appear for dinner on the North Eagle. She now lives on the deck of the sailing yacht and successfully scares off the seagulls.

Next episode: What happens to the collected plastic waste

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