Plastic-collecting seismic ships: the beginning of fossil fuel eco-adaptation?


Here’s a sentence that might shock you:

My Dad works for an oil exploration company.


You might be thinking a number of things, this may include:

  • “Do you get on with him?”
  • “How did you become so eco-minded?”
  • “What does he think of your blog?”

And the answers to those questions are

  • Yep, he’s my dad 🙂
  • I grew up mainly with my geography teacher of a mum, who has always erred on the side of conservation and taught me to love and preserve nature
  • I think he likes to read my blog from time to time – and I get the vibe that he admires what I do to help the planet.

Truth is, he became a geologist before oil got its bad rep, and my grandpa was a successful geologist before him. I suppose working in the fossil fuel sector seemed like the best thing to do at the time.

Anyway, Dad works for Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) which ‘provides images and 3D models of the subsurface beneath the ocean floor that oil companies use to find oil and gas reserves worldwide.’ But recently, he told me that an unfortunate downturn in oil prices has led to the redundancy of 4 of the Norwegian company’s seismic ships used for oil exploration. This, of course, was fortunate from an eco-perspective. Essentially, there is not enough demand for oil exploration.

So PGS has thought of ways of adapting these vessels and developed a concept for efficient, large-scale collection of plastic in the oceans. Taking advantage of the ships’ air compressors and capabilities for handling large towing contraptions, they would be used to float plastic to the surface of the water and, essentially, skim it off the top.

In PGS’s terms: The air compressors are used to pump air through a ventilated hose, towed at approximately 50 metres water depth between the seismic ship and the support vessel. The air bubbles attach to the submerged plastic which then rises to the sea surface, just like bubbles are attracted to a straw in a glass of sparkling water. The processing unit at the end of the collection spread separates organic materials from plastic. The latter is compressed and packaged into super-strong synthetic skins. Once full, each skin section is marked by GPS and AIS, ready to be collected and towed to a processing facility for recycling.

“There are well-known garbage geysers in different oceans of the world and our plastic collection concept is intended to take advantage of the currents in these systems and collect plastic before it eventually sinks to the seabed,” says Jon Erik Reinhardsen, President & CEO of PGS.

Pretty neat, huh?

Each year, eight million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans – equivalent to dumping the contents of one rubbish truck into the sea every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to double by 2030. Another mad stat while we’re at it, which I learnt whilst on Greenpeace’s ship The Esperanza:

If this plastic problem continues, by 2030 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

We’ve seen a lot of eco-adaptation from fossil-fuel based industry in the news lately, with Volvo announcing that it will be going 100% electric or hybrid with its car production by 2019. Could this be the start of fossil fuel companies changing in order to survive… or, in the case of PGS, is this a greenwashing attempt born out of the need to do ‘something’ with an otherwise wasted resource? Either way, it’s better that these floating hunks of metal are put to use clearing up at least some of the mess they have created, whether indirectly or not. Let’s not forget that plastic is made from oil, so PGS should be taking responsibility for this new-age form of oil spill. And if this project is approved, it’s only good news for Greenpeace’s #EndOceanPlastics campaign. Now to make those engines solar and wind-powered…


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