The issue of plastic pollution in nature, particularly in oceans, is a major ecological crisis, and is one of the defining environmental imperatives of our time. According to Ocean Conservancy, approximately 11m metric tons of plastics enter the oceans every year. These plastics pollute and contaminate sources of water such as rivers as well as having a deadly effect on wildlife. The tasks of reducing these levels are extremely challenging and several environmental experts claim that levels of plastic could double by 2025. Despite the monumental nature of the task at hand, in recent years, businesses and start-ups have begun turning their attention to the crisis and have helped act with their innovative solutions. So which are the companies that are helping clean the world’s most polluted rivers, what systems are they operating, and are they the ultimate solution?
The Ocean Cleanup is a nonprofit engineering organization based in the Netherlands that has been on a mission to gather 90% of plastic from oceans by 2040. Founder of the startup, Boyan Slat, said: “Our goal is to rid the oceans of plastic, and the reason why we look at rivers is because we believe it’s the fastest and most cost-effective way to prevent further plastic from being emitted to the ocean.”
One of their first innovations developed was the Interceptor launched in 2019. This is a solar-powered floating device created to harvest significant quantities of plastic waste every day. Placed at the mouth of a river, it funnels waste onto a conveyor belt and automatically deposits all the rubbish into various bins, which signal to the system when they are full so a boat can pick up everything that has been collected. The Interceptor is currently deployed in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam.
Size is one of the potential issues with the Interceptor and the fact that it cannot fit through smaller and more narrow rivers can be classed as a negative. However, the team at Ocean Cleanup has come up with a solution to that in the form of the Interceptor Barrier and the Interceptor Tender that work hand-in-hand. The barrier is a standalone floating barrier anchored in a U-shape around the mouth of a small river and intercepts waste and the tender works alongside the barrier with its conveyor belt to scoop up the waste gathered by the barrier and transport it into a dumpster onshore.
Ocean Cleanup aims to expand its plans in the years to come with Slat hoping for installations in more polluted rivers in countries including the United States.
The Great Bubble Barrier
The Bubble Barrier created and developed by The Great Bubble Barrier and Waternet is another Netherlands-based initiative that began in 2017. Founded by Saskia Studer, Francis Zoet, Anne Marieke Eveleens, and Philip Ehrhorn, it aims to prevent waterways from continuing to be “plastic highways”.
The barrier itself is a perforated tube laid within the bottom of canals with compressed air pushed through it. It performs 24 hours a day, every day, and forms a screen that collects any form of plastic waste suspended in the water. It is grasped and collected by the bubbles and pushed towards the surface, where it is then transported by the current to a catchment pool.
The first installation occurred in November 2019 in a canal in Amsterdam, commissioned by the Regional Water Authority Amstel, Gooi and Vecht and the municipality of Amsterdam. The project is set to scale up with the team recently announcing that the first bubble barrier outside the Netherlands, set to be installed in Portugal.
Indian-based firm, AlphaMERS, has also taken on the challenge of developing solutions to clean polluted rivers. However, the barrier it has developed, known as the Floating Trash Barrier (FTB), is significantly different from the ones of the Ocean Cleanup and The Great Bubble Barrier. AlphaMERS’s barrier is made from steel mesh and chains, so it can survive monsoon-type conditions, and floats just above the water and lowers to approximately 16 inches below. During its first year of operation in 2018 across the Cooum river in Chennai, the barrier managed to collect 2200 tons of plastics, emphasizing its success.
“The hydrodynamics and the hydrostatics of this is very simple but excellent for the job,” states AlphaMERS Founder D.C. Sekhar. “And it’s made very rugged, very heavy duty with steel chains holding it on both sides. So it’s able to withstand the monsoon flows immediately after the rain.”
The FTB works completely on the natural water flow of the river and is angled to direct waste towards the riverbank, making it a significantly low-cost solution on a per-ton basis.
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These initiatives and organizations all share the same mission of helping clean some of the world’s most polluted rivers but they all will need to understand the magnitude of the task at hand and that it is not the sole solution. According to a study completed by researchers at the University of Exeter, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Jacobs University, and Making Oceans Plastic Free, only 5% of ocean plastics will be removed by 2150. The study states that reducing disposal and increasing rates of recycling are essential in tackling ocean and river pollution.