Published 10 September 2021 ● Last Updated on 10 September 2021
Recent years have witnessed an unprecedented rise in consumption of plastic. The problem lies not just with the inconceivable amount of plastic waste generated, but also the amount which enters the ocean. Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans every year; it is clear that despite their significant levels of dedication, innovation and investment, clean-ups alone cannot tackle the sheer volume of plastic waste in the ocean. The crisis demands governments, innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs to think of radical ways to tackle marine pollution. Thankfully an increasing number of forward-thinking members of the society are already working at solutions that aim to combat ocean pollution. Here are some of the most innovative solutions helping to clear oceans and rivers of plastic waste that we have come across.
1. The Ocean Cleanup – developing technology to clear out plastic litter from the ocean
The Ocean Cleanup originated as an idea with then 16-year-old Boyan Slat, who was scuba diving in Greece and was aghast to see more plastic than fish. Thanks to his engineering mindset and his viral TedX video, it is now an established nonprofit environmental engineering organization. It develops and applies technology to extract plastic pollution from the oceans as well as intercept it in rivers before it can reach the seas.
Their ocean cleanup system consists of a floating barrier positioned at the surface of the water in the oceanic gyres that collects marine debris and navigates it into a desired direction. The speed difference between the cleanup system and the plastic creates an artificial coastline called the retention zone from where the collected plastic is extracted and then recycled.
To stem the inflow of plastics into the oceans, the Ocean Cleanup team has designed the Interceptor – a solution for river plastic waste. This system prevents plastic from entering the world’s oceans from rivers. With their innovations to reduce ocean pollution, The Ocean Cleanup has removed over 1 million pounds of trash from the environment (up till March 2021). Their goal: a 90% reduction in ocean plastic. We are cheering them on. Are you in?
2. Seven Clean Seas – Offsetting ocean plastic pollution one kilogram at a time
Imagine buying a t-shirt and helping pull out 13 kgs of plastic pollution from the ocean or buying a stainless- steel bottle to contribute towards emptying the waterways of 8kgs of plastic! Sounds like a fantasy, right? This fantasy became a reality when a Singapore-based couple founded Seven Clean Seas in 2018 to fight marine plastic pollution in South East Asia. What started as a beach cleanup community in Singapore soon metamorphosed into a group which organizes monthly international coastal clean ups, holds educational talks and informative sessions for remote communities and enables private companies and individuals to show their concern for the ocean and marine life.
So, what’s their innovative idea that helps alleviate plastic waste in the ocean? It’s a mechanism called Plastic Offsetting -through purchase of Plastic Credits, companies can offset their plastic consumption in weight with Seven Seas pulling out plastic from the ocean on their behalf-helping the organisations achieve plastic neutrality. Additionally, they have developed a high impact-low-cost River Plastic Recovery System, stemming the flow of trash from rivers into oceans.
The organization has pulled out a whopping 1,85,0990 kgs of plastic pollution from the ocean so far and aims to recover an ambitious 10,000,000 kgs by 2025.
3. Ocean Conservancy – Formulating science-based solution and policies to protect the ocean
Based in Washington D.C., Ocean Conservancy is a nonprofit environmental advocacy group working at multiple fronts-designing policies, leveraging scientific solutions and rallying support of the people, to reach innovative solutions for a sustainable ocean. Through different programmes, the group addresses some of the major threats faced by our oceans today. Be it suggesting sustainable climate measures to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, or engaging with legislative leaders and policy makers to offer solutions to ocean’s most urgent problems – the group has it all covered. Their fight against risky oil drilling in the Arctic resulted in the U.S. government marking 10 million acres as off limits to oil and gas companies.
Their marquee solution to ensure #trashfreeseas are their International Coastal Cleanups (ICC) where nearly 12 million volunteers from 153 countries have worked together to collect more than 220 million pounds of trash in the last 30 years! Their report on the findings of their annual cleanups works as a guide post for policy makers and ocean lovers with its insight and understanding of what ocean trash looks like and how to address it.
4. Parley for the Oceans – upcycling marine plastic waste to give it a new purpose and use
An ingenious innovation to reduce marine plastic pollution that truly targets the core of the problem, i.e. plastic never dies, is the Ocean Plastic Materials by Parley for the Oceans. An environmental organisation and global collaboration network, Parley for the Oceans uses a mix of initiatives like awareness campaigns, cleanup operations and recycling efforts to clean up the oceans and shorelines. However, they believe that a long-term solution to marine plastic pollution lies in reducing the use of virgin plastics in product design, manufacturing and distribution. To this end, the organisation works with a network of leading material experts and innovators, to create eco-innovative materials from marine plastic trash. Their collaboration with the international sports brand Adidas for a range of sports shoes made using upcycled marine plastic is a case in point.
5. Seabin Project – Innovation in product design to collect marine trash
“If you can have bins on land, then why not in the water?,” thought Pete Ceglinski, an Australian entrepreneur. This line of inquiry culminated with him establishing the Seabin Project in 2013 along with fellow ocean lover Andrew Turton. As an innovation to reduce ocean pollution, Seabin Project tackles marine litter in public waterways, marinas, and ports with its “rubbish skimmer” technology and is now a global initiative operating in more than 53 countries. The Seabin moves up and down with the range of tide collecting all floating rubbish. Water is sucked in from the surface and passes through a catch bag inside the Seabin, which is then pumped back into the marina, leaving litter and debris trapped in the catch bag to be disposed of properly. With an aim to further refine their technology to reduce ocean pollution and make it more data-driven, Seabin recently partnered with Coca-Cola Australia to collect data that helps measure where the waste in waterways is coming from and how successful their reduction efforts are.
6. Suchitwa Sagaram – making durable roads made out of plastic catch
Launched in 2017 by the Kerala government’s harbour engineering department (HED), in India, Suchitwa Sagaram (Clean Sea) provides a viable way to turn the ocean plastic problem into heat resilient roads. Under this campaign, the local fishermen are given compensation for the plastic waste collected and carried back to the shore. In the past, they would simply throw back the plastic waste they caught as bycatch back into the ocean. The plastic waste recovered is then cleansed and reused as material in asphalt used to build local roads.
While there are genuine questions that arise about the impact of laying the roads with plastic – Will this leak microplastic? Is there a risk of toxic gases? Are we inadvertently increasing demand for virgin plastic? and so on, it is heartening to see that this initiative has led to new means of livelihood for a small group of local women who undertake the washing and sorting of collected plastic. To date 3000 fishermen in Kollam have signed up to the programme and they have collected 80 tons of waste plastic proving that it is possible to turn plastic waste in the ocean into a valuable resource.
Mobile apps designed to help fighting marine litter
There are a plethora of mobile apps available to help fight marine litter. Designed using the latest technology to document ocean pollution, these apps help by reporting the types and quantities of marine debris items found underwater; some even support transparency over the ingredients in food, drinks and cosmetics. The Clean Swell app, for instance, lets users easily record each item of trash they collect; others like Litterati is designed for groups / communities to track their environmental impact. Then there’s Singapore-based Stridy app, that lets you find a route that needs a cleaning hand; you can share and compare your finds with a global community of litter pickers.
In Singapore, about 900 million kg of plastic waste is discarded every year. Just 4% of this is recycled. This alarming and disturbing fact has spurred many companies to make a commitment towards eliminating excessive and unnecessary plastic use in their businesses. Some like the Ocean Purpose Project are working towards ocean conservation at scale. By developing technology to create fuel from plastic (while removing tonnes of waste pollution at a profit), establishing a circular economy with a biodegradable marine-friendly plastic alternative (bio-plastics) and conducting data-driven beach clean-ups, Ocean Purpose Project aims to solve the ocean plastic crisis.
While these innovative solutions are aiding our ocean cleanups, we can all do our part to help too. Let’s start by eliminating single use plastic from our lives- it’s not that hard and it’s very rewarding!