How to stop plastic getting into the ocean | The Economist

published on July 2, 2020

By 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean by weight, than fish

Plastic pollution is definitely one of the largest threats our oceans face today

Every year millions of tonnes of plastic flows from rivers into the sea

polluting ecosystems and even getting into the food chain

One group of engineers is applying technology

in new ways to tackle plastic pollution

Rivers are really the arteries that carry the plastic from land to sea

By stemming the flow at the source

Roughly four million people live in the basin of the Klang river in Malaysia

It’s one of the most polluted rivers in the world

This team is trying to clean it up

And stop the river’s harmful waste from flowing into the ocean

They’re pinning their hopes on this rubbish-eating boat, called The Interceptor

The river’s current directs the debris onto a barrier

from where it is funnelled into the boat’s conveyor belt

This is one of four boats being trialled by The Ocean Cleanup

a pioneering engineering company based in the Netherlands

The idea was dreamt up by Boyan Slat

who, as a 16-year-old school boy

decided to dedicate himself to ridding the ocean of plastic

I went scuba diving in Greece And I was really hoping to see these

beautiful things like you’d see in the David Attenborough documentaries

And looked around me and I just saw more plastic bags than fish

And was rather disappointed by that

And this question came to mind Why can’t we just clean this up?

Since then his organisation has devised a number of innovative ways

to apply technology to the problem

When we started The Ocean Cleanup back in 2013

we said, let’s focus our attention on plastic that’s already out there

and doesn’t go away by itself Yet two years later

we realised to rid the world’s oceans of plastic

you really have to do both the prevention and the clean-up side

and started looking at the rivers

Every year millions of tonnes of plastic finds its way into the ocean

Most of which floats down rivers that run through heavily populated areas

Areas where waste-collection systems are flawed or non-existent

meaning millions of people are forced to use the waterways

as a means of disposal

But the first step to solving the problem is to understand the scale of it

What you see is that the first studies that try to estimate

how much plastic is flowing into the ocean

were just assumptions, heavily extrapolated over the entire globe

At the beginning, there’s nothing better than those kind of studies

But to truly calculate the amount of pollution in the rivers

they need to be monitored continuously

So, The Ocean Cleanup has come up with a new way to do just that

using a camera-monitoring system, that can detect the size and type of

plastic and the speed at which it’s travelling

It plans to install these cameras on bridges above rivers all over the world

in the hope that this will give a clearer idea

of where they should concentrate their efforts

Current analysis suggests that 80% of ocean plastic

comes from around 1,000 rivers

The vast majority of the worst-polluting rivers

are in Asia, Africa and South America

The Pasig river in Manila is one of the worst polluters

It’s calculated that every year 965m kgs of plastic

travels along the river, some of which ends up in the South China Sea

Plastic pollution’s impact on tourism, fisheries

and governmental-cleanup projects is estimated

to have cost coastal countries around $19bn per year

But the long-term environmental effect could be far greater

Matthias Egger is a lead scientist at The Ocean Cleanup

This is what marine-based sources of debris looks like—big

With his team, he is studying plastics collected from

the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”

a 16m sq km zone, near Hawaii, littered with marine debris

But the hard work is done in a lab in Rotterdam

She is extracting the plastics from the sample

She is measuring them to put them in different size classes and different types

This laborious process allows them to understand the amount

composition and often the origin of plastic that ends up in the ocean

It looks like Japanese to me You never see them this size

The impact on marine life is very different for the different kind of plastic

and also in terms of sizes If we have very large piece of plastic

like a ghost net, for example, entanglement is the main risk

The smaller the plastic pieces, the more impactful they are on the ecosystem

Sunlight and sea water can break plastic down into microplastics

which ocean creatures often mistake for food

When they eat the plastic, they absorb chemicals

that then enter the food chain

The long-term effects of these plastics in the food chain

and on humans, are still unknown

There’s a lot of research being done at the moment

The tricky part is plastic is very diverse It’s not just one type of plastic

it comes in different sizes, shapes

The data we have so far indicates there is potential negative impact

on the marine life We really need to have an understanding of

how much plastic is where and what kind of plastic do we find

in the different marine systems, marine compartments

Interceptor boats have been installed in rivers

in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic

where each boat has been collecting on average 50,000kg of rubbish a day

So far, we’ve caught roughly two-thirds of the plastic that flows by

The team collaborates with governments to ensure that the plastic collected

from the boats is disposed of at local waste-management facilities

But that’s not the end of The Ocean Cleanup’s efforts

For us, it’s not enough to say, OK, we’ve taken it out of the rivers

so we feel responsible to actually guarantee that the plastic

doesn’t end up back into the river again

The Ocean Cleanup isn’t the only group that is trying

to solve the issue of plastic pollution in the world’s rivers

But it believes they have a solution that can scale

We did not design it for one specific river

we designed The Interceptor to work in a fast-flowing river in Thailand

as well as in a slow-moving river in Indonesia

Over the next few years, the team plans to gain more investment

through crowdfunding and independent benefactors

to add hundreds more Interceptor boats to its fleet

They also have plans to recycle some of this plastic

and create products that can sell, to make the initiative self-sufficient

But removing plastic pollution from the world’s dirtiest rivers

will take more than just clever technology

With our Interceptors, it’s not a replacement to having good infrastructure

or good policy, right So, what we actually believe is that

these things can be complementary to each other, where

with these Interceptors, a lot of data is being collected

which can actually help steer policy in other types of campaigns upstream

Until adequate waste collection is implemented globally

The Ocean Cleanup will struggle against the growing tide of plastic

But protectors like Boyan Slat are developing new approaches

that could benefit the ocean for future generations

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