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Oceans Fill With Toxic Plastic Garbage, Help Comes from an Oil Billionaire

[DIGEST: Time, CBC, Guardian, Nature, LA Times]

A Norwegian billionaire who made his fortune in the oil and gas industry plans to dedicate his money to help clean up the massive amount of plastic that is polluting global waters. Kjell Inge Roekke owns controlling shares in the Norwegian offshore fishing, construction, and engineering company Aker ASA, as well as an oil business, and has vowed to give away much of his fortune. He plans to fund a research vessel that will study ocean pollution and clean it up. The ship, which will take three years to build, will include storage for 120 tons of waste, which is will periodically bring back to land for disposal, and an onboard incinerator that will destroy of up to five tons of plastic waste a day.


"I want to give back to society the bulk of what I've earned," Roekke said. "This ship is a part of it. The idea of such a ship has evolved over many years."

The state-of-the-art ship will be managed by conservation organization World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and will perform marine research, with a special focus on how to control the enormous amount of plastic garbage now at sea. It will include sea and air drones, an auditorium, and lab space. The ship will have a permanent crew of 30 people, plus a rotating team of about 60 scientists engaging in different types of research geared towards improving ocean conditions. Roekke has given WWF complete independence as for its mission. 

OceansKjell Inge Roekke. (Credit: Source.)

"We are far apart in their views on oil, and we will continue to challenge Røkke when we disagree with him. But in this project we will meet to collectively make a big difference in the environmental struggle,” said WFF chief Nina Jensen, who acknowledges that Roekke’s project won’t be enough to fix the problem of ocean pollution. “We know that probably by 2050 the oceans will be filled with more plastics than fish, so it will take a lot more than one vessel to fix this.”

Jensen says the ship will remove larger pieces of plastic, but smaller, “microplastics” are an increasingly dire problem. Microplastics absorb or carry organic contaminants, such as PCBs, pesticides, flame retardants and hormone-disrupting compounds of many kinds, and are consumed by ocean life — including fish and other species eaten by humans. Microplastics have become so pervasive in marine environments that they are even present in sea salt that is consumed by humans, according to a recent study.

"There is no doubt that the oceans are filling up rapidly with plastics and the problem is that the majority of it isn't just floating around on the surface. It's actually disintegrating and

separating into much smaller pieces and so-called microplastics, and this is the real hidden problem that we really need to try and get to," she said.

"The microplastics in the oceans aren't just originating from plastic bags. It's coming from our fleece sweaters, it's coming from Q-Tips, it's coming from soccer fields. We're basically surrounding ourselves in plastics."

The continuous motion of ocean waters means that both microplastic particles and larger pieces of plastic garbage are now present even in the most remote places on Earth. Hundreds of tons of plastic garbage have been found in the Arctic Ocean, the most sparsely populated region on the planet.

“We already knew that the marine plastic pollution was high at tropical and temperate latitudes,” said Andrés Cózar, an ecologist at the University of Cadiz in Spain, who conducted a study of ocean pollution in the Arctic. “Now, we also know that the plastic waste is extending up to the poles.”

Cózar and his colleagues estimated that 63% of the ice-free Arctic Ocean is “slightly polluted” with various types of plastic debris, including fishing line, microbeads, and fragments of plastic products. 

Roekke’s billions largely came from the oil industry, whose product is used to create plastics. Forbes reported that Roekke has "earned a reputation as a ruthless corporate raider" throughout his career. "He was the first one to bring American-style, aggressive capitalism to Norway, daring to use shareholder power to get what he wanted," Steinar Dyrnes, author of a biography of Roekke.

However, this burst of philanthropy is not entirely unexpected. Roekke began his career as a fisherman, and has observed the decline of the oceans for decades. He also spent 23 days in prison after being convicted of bribing his way to a boating license. After his release, he spent more than $3,000 on takeout pizzas for his old cellmates.