Surfer Simen Knudsen couldn’t help but notice all the pollution on his ”playground” aka, the Norwegian Coastline. And in 2013, he decided to do something about it by teaming up with fellow surfer, Vilma Havas, to create a community dedicated to cleaning up the massive amounts of trash brought to the Nordics by the Gulf Stream. And just like that, Nordic Ocean Watch was born. Simen humbly describes this community he founded as surfing and paddling combined with beach cleaning, but Nordic Ocean Watch has become a bit of a movement.
With the adopted mantra ”Tavaha” (”Take care of the ocean” in Norwegian) and free membership, the Nordic Ocean Watch community is now an established non-profit organization that reaches across the Nordics. Working together with all kinds of groups, from educators to legislators, everyone is encouraged to find their way to tackle the climate crisis. The goal is simply to present every problem alongside a solution.
We recently met up with Simen online and asked him about the work Nordic Ocean Watch is doing.
Simen: If it's ever been made out of plastic, we’ve found it. I think every product category is represented in the collection of materials we’ve found. Besides plastic, we find all kinds of different things. For instance, here on the West Coast, we get a lot of fishing gear. That's like seventy percent of everything we find.
There’s a lot of plastic drinking bottles, and only one in ten is from our region. 90 percent of the bottles on ’my’ beach is from other countries. In Norway, we have a deposit system for bottles and, yeah, our project kind of shows that the deposit system works since we can track most of the bottles as coming from the UK.
We were part of a campaign to implement the deposit system for bottles and now Scotland is implementing it – built on the blueprint from the Norwegian model! It's not just because of us, but it's cool that our organization can be a part of changing politics in an another country.
”Cleaning beaches is like brushing your teeth”
What hurts the most is seeing how fragmented the plastic becomes. When it's in the ocean, it turns into smaller and smaller pieces. That might sound like a good thing, but it's not. Because then it gets into the ecosystem more easily, and into animals. We can find 400 pieces of plastic, each less than two millimeters, in one square meter of the beach. When I see that it’s like, ’How are we ever going to get a clean planet?’
I realize that I'm probably never, ever going to surf on a beach that isn’t polluted with plastic. And that’s… just difficult. But it doesn't really stop me. It’s just like I'm brushing my teeth. I have to do it over and over again.
I acknowledge that there’s going to be plastic on our beaches for the rest of my life, so we have to clean up every little piece that we can. It's still a contribution. I don't like metrics, because you should not put things into perspective all the time. It might create the feeling that your contribution doesn’t matter since there are 15 million tons of plastic going into the ocean every minute. I’m like, ‘Every piece counts!’ No matter how you look at it. You have to start somewhere, and if we don’t pick up a little piece of plastic it could possibly ruin an animal's life.
Studying Excel sheets and reports might be the best way to understand the problem, but just sitting at home waiting for a good idea won’t solve it. To actually try something with small experiments and then go bigger and bigger as you learn, is the most constructive way to go. We have a limited time to save the planet with only ten years to turn it around. Everyone should just be out there experimenting. I guess that's the beautiful thing with collecting plastic in the ocean, it makes it graspable. Go out there and pick something up and just do something good. That’s kind of the gateway, and next thing you know, you’re doing something bigger.
We like using this entry because we know it gets people to open their eyes since it is something tangible. We have people joining and afterwards they say ’This is the first time I felt like I contributed something good to the world.’
When we work at the beach cleanups, we also try to talk about the other issues concerning the ocean. You have ocean acidification, sound pollution, overfishing acidification and the death of seabirds.
It creates an energy and a feeling that makes the participants think, ’What can I do?’
For instance, we had a spinoff from our beach cleanups called Empower. It started with people who volunteered, and then all of a sudden they're building this global blockchain company to clean up the world from plastic. I think that is because of those ripples you get by just touching something.
”We focus on handprints instead of footprints”
Everyone knows that you have a footprint on the planet. We want to minimize it and we can, but it can never be zero because you're a human being. So instead of focusing too much on creating a zero footprint, we like to talk about handprints. What can I do to actually create an improvement for the future? That's how we want people to think, and that’s why we don’t have any paying members. We don't want people to look at themselves as consumers, instead they are contributors. So if we can flip that switch in peoples’ heads, I think we’ll create completely different ways of building companies, initiatives and living life. Handprints, footprints and contribution instead of consuming. That’s like the philosophy.
Most of our projects are funded by a partner. We have to have some kind of social and cultural capital to get funded, to make a company or an organization want to have their logo alongside ours.
To get to that point, we need to clean as many beaches as we can, and create the coolest community with the best people. You have to start with nothing and just start getting all these activities going and just create a track record. Our biggest value is the cultural ’coolness’ that kinda triumphs everything.
Q: When you aren’t busy with saving the ocean, what do you do?
Simen: I surf.