Interview: Christine Spiten, WWF & Cleaning Up Ocean Plastics
Christine Spiten, Nor-Shipping’s latest #ACTION hero, is profiled here, explaining how she left Blueye for the WWF and a mission to stop the ocean's plastics problem the problem at its source.
“Eight million tons.”
Christine Spiten lets the number sink in for a second … “That’s how much plastic enters the sea every year from our cities and rivers. It threatens not just local ecosystems and the wider environment, but also us – our food sources, our livelihoods, our very existence. It is the fastest growing environmental problem we face. And it demands action. Now.”
Spiten doesn’t like wasting time. The 30 year old Norwegian is a former national sailing champion, co-founded pioneering underwater drone company Blueye Robotics in 2015 – with the goal of making underwater exploration more accessible, for both individuals and industry – was shortlisted for Nor-Shipping’s Young Entrepreneur Award in 2017 and, in 2019, decided to use her passion and business network to help the World Wildlife Fund. She is now their Senior Advisor, Plastic & Circular Economy.
“I was sick of being at the ‘end of funnel’,” she explains.
“Through my work with Blueye I wanted to help people fall in love with the ocean. To both reveal and immerse them in the beauty beneath the waves, hopefully sparking a lifelong interest and passion. People care for things they experience, enjoy and understand. Blueye drones open up a new world of wonder.
“However,” she adds, “I also saw at first hand, through both research projects and commercial and recreational use, just how much pollution was entering our oceans. I saw it’s impact and felt, I don’t know… a little powerless. I wanted to change that. I wanted to help address the problem at its source – to try and block the funnel.
“But that,” she says with an air of marked understatement, “is a challenge.”
Collaborating for change
Spiten wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s rare to speak to someone that oozes this much ambition. She speaks with a calm, focused manner that belies the obvious energy she possesses. A quick look through her CV reveals various business founder and board roles – including a position as a co-Captain of EnterpreneurShipOne, an organisation working to tackle ocean challenges through collaboration and innovation - and an advisor job with Rev Ocean, Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Røkke’s not-for-profit research organisation.
“This is what I love doing, working with the ocean” she states. “And if I can help affect positive change then it’s the ultimate win-win.”
And it looks like she’s already scored some double victories.
Spiten’s chief responsibility is to work with the corporate sector to help bring about transformation in how business addresses the use (and ownership) of plastics, helping enable a more circular economy and drastically reducing waste. Her remit ranges from engaging with FMCG firms through to political initiatives and collaborations. With her established business network and profile through Blueye, the maritime sector is an obvious area of focus. And initial success.
“I was delighted to announce our collaboration with the Grieg Foundation earlier this year,” she notes. “That’s a clear example of how we can work together with industry on a solutions-orientated approach – utilising commercial expertise and assets to deliver on environmental objectives.”
The two partners have set their sights on the Philippines – both home to the majority of Grieg Group’s seafarers and, sadly, a major ocean polluter. The sprawling archipelagic nation is the world’s third most plastic-polluting country, after China and Indonesia, despite the fact that around half of its 100 million strong population depend on ocean fishing for their livelihoods.
Grieg and WWF are launching a multi-faceted initiative where they will work with local partners, including port authorities and waste management firms, to map the waterborne pollution in three key harbour areas. Innovation projects to address the issue will then be initiated, again with local involvement, while education campaigns will engage the businesses that are seen to have an impact on localised plastic pollution.
“It’s about taking responsibility for the future as well as addressing the issues today,” Spiten comments. “We need a behavioural change to engender an environmental one.”
The activity will be supported by a national TV fundraising campaign in Norway, which aims to raise enough money to improve waste management systems for around 1million people in The Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, while also reducing annual plastic pollution flowing into the sea by approximately 7,000 tonnes a year.
The Grieg collaboration, meanwhile, has set its sights on a reduction of 50% in waterborne plastic waste across its three target areas.
“We have to be positive when we look to future goals,” Spiten smiles. “Ambition is a good thing to have!”
Platform for progress
The future is a theme the WWF advisor frequently returns to. She sees a clear need for the maritime business to engage with and nurture the next generation of ocean space enthusiasts – bringing in fresh perspectives and innovation, while tapping into their passion and energy.
“We need more platforms like Nor-Shipping for example,” she explains. “At Nor-Shipping you have an arena whereby start-up companies – like Blueye was – have an opportunity to build networks and communicate concepts to industry leaders. It’s a place where innovation meets established players, and that is vital for overall maritime development.
“At the same time you have students and young people interested in careers in the ocean space discovering not only opportunities, but also seeing where the industry needs help – where they might be able to deliver with unique talent and ideas, for example in the area of sustainability.
“Shipping can’t stand still in a world of change,” she surmises. “It needs to evolve in line with growing challenges, opportunities and awareness. Arenas like Nor-Shipping have a role to play in that process.”
Spiten is pleased to hear that the next Nor-Shipping, taking place in Lillestrøm and at a variety of venues across nearby Oslo from 1-4 June 2021, is focused on #ACTION. Because, she stresses in conclusion, that’s what the ocean desperately needs.
“Environmental awareness is growing and many businesses have adopted positive approaches with regards to, for example, the UN Sustainability Goals. But the world needs more than positive sentiments, it needs solutions to its challenges. We need transformation.
“A new approach to plastic is central to that. It really is time for action. Now.”