Our oceans are in pretty bad shape these days. As are the plants and animals that call them home. From sea-animal deaths to once-pristine beaches littered with waste, the evidence of the ocean plastic crisis is all around us. If we stick to this trajectory, Earth’s oceans will have more plastic in them than fish by 2050, according to a study released last month by the Ocean Conservancy.
Halting the tide of debris is a crucial step to thwarting the crisis — and moves like America’s decision to ban plastic microbeads from personal care products will surely prove invaluable. But the hard reality is: We’ve already dumped so much waste into our oceans that devising ways to remove some of it has become an unavoidable task.
Fortunately for us, innovators the world-over are tackling this challenge that was once considered impossible.\
1. ‘The largest cleanup in history’
Back in 2013, Boyan Slat, a then 19-year-old Dutch national, dreamed up a concept he believed could remove mountains of waste from our oceans with a passive design and little equipment. A year later his NGO, the Ocean Cleanup, raised $2.2 million in the most successful nonprofit crowdfunding campaign in history.
Slat’s idea is simple: Instead of deploying resources into the oceans to remove debris, we simply use the ocean’s currents to clean them instead. In his concept, large floating barriers would be deployed — theoretically catching debris as currents ran through them.
After two years of testing, the Ocean Cleanup is preparing to deploy its first pilot barrier in the second quarter of this year. The 100-meter segment will be constructed in the North Sea, about 14 miles off the coast of the Netherlands. Researchers will “monitor the effects of real-life sea conditions, with a focus on waves and currents,” to better prepare for a full-scale launch, the nonprofit said in a press release.
To learn more about the concept, check out this video interview with young inventor Boyan Slat.
2. Low-tech, 24/7 rubbish collection
Australian surfers Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski spend a good amount of time at ports and marinas. After years of watching garbage float by, the two devised a concept to engage ports, marinas and yacht clubs in the fight against ocean plastic.
As the duo put it on their Indiegogo page, which received full backing at the start of this year: “Mother nature brings us the rubbish,” and they do the rest with their device called the Seabin.
Here’s how it works: The Seabin is attached to an unused corner of a marina or port that is known to become clogged with trash and debris. A shore-based water pump creates a flow of water into the bin, bringing with it bottles, bags and other debris. The water is pumped through, while a biodegradable catch-bag retains the rubbish. Bags can be easily emptied on the marina’s regular cleaning schedule.
After raising more than $250,000 on Indiegogo, Turton and Ceglinski plan to ship the first Seabins at the end of this year.
3. A water wheel for waste
Okay, enough about concepts. Let’s talk about a system that’s already in use and making a big difference. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Water Wheel, or “Mr. Trash Wheel” to locals, harnesses the power of water and sunlight to collect debris flowing down the Jones Falls River.
The river’s current turns the wheel, which lifts trash and debris from the water and deposits it into a dumpster barge. When the water current is too slow, a solar panel array provides additional power to keep the machine running. Full dumpsters are towed away by boat, and a new dumpster is put in place. Pretty simple, right?
Beyond that, some experts have called it the only “truly feasible” concept to harvest debris from waterways. Click here to check out a live feed of the trash wheel in action.
4. Hunting ‘ghost gear’
Launched in September 2015, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative is the first effort dedicated to tackling the problem of ghost fishing gear at a global scale. Ghost gear, which refers to abandoned fishing equipment like nets, line, rope and traps, makes up around 10 percent of global marine litter. An estimated 640,000 tons is added to our oceans annually.
The initiative supports nearly 20 projects around the world that capture and make use of ghost gear. Such innovations include:
- In the U.S., the NOAA’s Fishing for Energy program converts derelict fishing gear into energy. The program also provides grants for gear removal and develops technologies to reduce gear loss.
- In Africa and the Philippines, the Net-Works program rallies local communities to collect discarded nets. They then sell them back into a global supply chain – generating income and giving those waste-nets a second life as new carpet tile.
- In the Maldives, the Olive Ridley Project is actively fighting ghost nets in the Indian Ocean through removal, research and awareness.
- In the seas around Great Britain, Scandinavia and Western Europe, Fishing for Litterdeploys fishing boats strapped with collection bags to remove ghost gear and other debris.
The initiative is still taking on new partners, and its portfolio of projects is growing all the time.
Image credits: 1) Flickr/Fabio Achilli 2) The Ocean Cleanup 3) The Seabin Project via Indiegogo 4) The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore