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World Oceans Day offers a reminder about the plastic problem

Turning tap off at rivers is key to reducing ocean plastic, says The Ocean Cleanup

(Photo: The Ocean Cleanup)

Discarded plastic that winds up in oceans traps marine animals, pollutes waters, breaks down into microplastics and can end up on the dinner plates of seafood lovers. 

Maybe you heard the World Economic Forum’s dire prediction: There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight by 2050. But one Netherlands-based nonprofit is working to “turn off the tap” by intercepting river plastic before it reaches the ocean and clean up 90% of floating plastic in the oceans by 2040.

The Ocean Cleanup is currently catching plastic in three plastic-polluting rivers globally and plans to expand to 15 rivers by the end of 2022, Lonneke Holierhoek, director of science and operations at The Ocean Cleanup, told FreightWaves. As of the end of the first quarter of 2021, The Ocean Cleanup has reportedly removed 1 million pounds of plastic from aquatic ecosystems.

The organization sent an ocean mission out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) in the North Pacific Gyre in 2019 and plans to send another mission there later in 2021.

How does the organization collect ocean plastic?

The Ocean Cleanup System moves with the wind, waves and current, but it has a parachute sea anchor that slows its speed of movement compared to the speed of plastic. This allows the arc-shaped floating barrier to gather plastic over time. The barriers block floating debris from passing and have nets attached to prevent plastic from escaping below.

System 001/B collecting plastic in the ocean (Photo: The Ocean Cleanup)

An ocean vessel periodically collects the plastic and ships it to land nearby for recycling. Since 2018, A.P. Møller — Maersk has been partnering with The Ocean Cleanup to provide ocean services and offshore expertise. The partnership with Maersk is a great match, Holierhoek said, because Maersk is knowledgeable and maybe even as ambitious as The Ocean Cleanup.

Just around the riverbend

The Ocean Cleanup’s research estimated that 1,000 rivers globally are responsible for 80% of plastic that spills into the ocean. 

(Infographic: The Ocean Cleanup)

“Tackling the world’s top polluting rivers in emerging economies is the low-hanging fruit, the quick fix, that we ought to be embracing if we are serious about turning off the tap. It’s the fastest and most cost-effective way to plug the leaks we can implement today, buying ourselves time to make more long-term and more structural changes,” Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, said in a statement.

Different tactics for collecting river plastic

Floating barriers are installed in river locations that allow them to guide the most plastic to the “Interceptors,” depending on the currents. The solar-powered semi-autonomous vessels can collect up to 110 tons of plastic per day, using a conveyor belt to bring it on board the ship. 

The Interceptors automatically disperse plastic evenly among six dumpsters and notify local operators when all of the dumpsters are nearly full. Interceptors continue collecting plastic while a vessel brings the dumpsters ashore and empties them for recycling.

Why the GPGP?

There are five gyres in the ocean with currents that gather plastic floating on the surface. The Ocean Cleanup data indicates the North Pacific Gyre is about the same size as the other four combined. Therefore, Holierhoek said, “If we do the North Pacific, we’re already halfway there.”

But collecting the amount of plastic that weighs the same as 500 jumbo jets is no easy task. A 2018 study by The Ocean Cleanup and other researchers estimated that the volume of plastic floating in the GPGP, more than 80,000 tons, is four to 16 times larger than previous approximations. 

The study listed several classifications for debris collected, including ghost nets abandoned by fishermen, macroplastics such as bottles and crates, and microplastics, which are fragments of plastic objects.

Sorted nets and plastic debris from an ocean catch (Photo: The Ocean Cleanup)

“What we really want to do is prevent secondary microplastics from being created because once it is microplastic, … it’s just simply harder to get it,” Holierhoek said. “The secondary microplastics are created by fragmenting the bigger pieces of plastic by leaving them in the ocean for a long time. What we’re doing is removing a lot of the big stuff to prevent them becoming too small to collect, so that’s really our focus.”

Tuesday, World Oceans Day, offers a reminder about the scope of the plastic problem and highlights the role of plastic collection efforts and minimizing plastic use in ridding the oceans of plastic.

Maersk plastic mapping

“If we know how plastic moves, we can be where the most plastic is and be the most effective” at collecting it, Holierhoek said. She noted that Maersk is encouraging its employees to take pictures of plastic they see in the ocean and upload them to a mobile app, which automatically attaches a GPS location and timestamp to the image for scientific use.

Maersk and The Ocean Cleanup are also considering installing specialized cameras on the outside of Maersk ocean vessels to more accurately map ocean plastic movement, according to Holierhoek.

Classifying and treating collected plastic as a valuable resource

Once plastic is collected, The Ocean Cleanup has to work with governments and regulations that limit or ban the acceptance of foreign waste. These regulations were not developed with an eye toward organizations trying to properly dispose of and recycle waste from places like the ocean, Holierhoek said.

“Shipping material that you fish out of the ocean to another continent is not as easy as it sounds,” Holierhoek said.

Holierhoek said Maersk helps The Ocean Cleanup navigate government regulations and permits to ensure that once the plastic and other materials reach land, they are treated as valuable, recyclable materials and not seized and destroyed by the government. 

“We need to see plastic as a continuing resource that we need to reuse all of the time rather than create new plastic all of the time.”

In October, The Ocean Cleanup started selling $200 sunglasses made from ocean plastic; each pair is estimated to fund the cleaning of 24 football fields of the GPGP. Holierhoek said the purpose of this is not only to give the waste a new purpose but also to give consumers a tangible way to support the organization’s efforts to reduce plastic pollution. 

Partnership with Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola will help The Ocean Cleanup fund and implement Interceptors in 15 rivers over the next 18 months, according to the partnership announced Wednesday.

“In the cleaning efforts in rivers, we do find their [Coca-Cola] products quite frequently, so we really embrace anybody who wants to become part of the solution who has been part of the problem,” Holierhoek said.

Founder and CEO Boyan Slat on the Interceptor in Klang River, Malaysia (Photo: The Ocean Cleanup)

Coca-Cola’s global presence and partnership will help The Ocean Cleanup navigate government regulations, create or use the right recycling infrastructure in different regions, and fund cleanup projects, Holierhoek said. She noted that the organization wants to leverage the competencies of companies like Maersk and Coca-Cola around the world.

“We find many plastic bottles, including Coca-Cola packaging, so I applaud them for being the first in the industry to join our mission, as part of their wider actions to make a positive impact on worldwide plastic pollution,” Slat said in a release.

Research and plastic collection

The System 001 mission ran initial tests in 2018. In 2019, The Ocean Cleanup team collected its first ocean plastic in the GPGP. The 2019 campaign launched System 001/B, which was adapted to more effectively collect plastic and adapt to ocean environments. 

The next ocean mission, using System 002, is scheduled to deploy in 2021. Holierhoek confirmed that more news about System 002 and this mission to the GPGP should be announced in the next few weeks.

“These are important [research] phases for us to complete in a high-quality sense,” Holierhoek said. She said the organization expects river and ocean plastic collection efforts to scale up quickly once the technology is effective and efficient.

On May 20, The Ocean Cleanup announced it had caught 1 million pounds of plastic from oceans and rivers. That number was 500,000 pounds of plastic at the end of 2020, meaning the organization doubled its catch number in the first four months of 2021. 

These numbers are verified using the ocean plastic standard by DNV, which is short for Det Norske Veritas and, translated, means “the Norwegian truth.” DNV is an organization that provides the maritime industry and the energy value chain with third-party testing and certifications.

Though The Ocean Cleanup has not consistently reported the quantities of plastic it was collecting, it said it will annually report its catch numbers going forward.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.