By: Amelia Buckley
“If you want to do something, do it as soon as possible.” -Boyan Slat
In the age of the internet, we at The Optimist Daily hope that stories of gratitude and positivity go viral alongside cute videos of baby animals and awkward memes. This week we are diving deeper into a story which captivated audiences around the globe last month: The Ocean Cleanup. The story about this amazing non-profit and their solar-powered, plastic-capturing river barges was shared over 81,000 times online, 4,000 times on our Optimist Daily facebook page alone.
The Ocean Cleanup
The Ocean Cleanup was started by Boyan Slat in 2013 after a trip to Greece yielded more plastic in the sea than fish. Founded by the then 16-year-old with the ambitious goal of ridding the world’s waterways of plastic, the non-profit has grown into an powerful force for environmental good. Plastic pollution in our world’s oceans is almost overwhelming. It infiltrates our food chains, negatively impacts hundreds of marine species, and carries a yearly economic cost between $6-19 billion due to its impact on tourism, fisheries, and aquaculture.
The oceans’ natural currents trap this plastic waste into gyres, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where it breaks down into microplastics that are becoming harder and harder to collect. The Ocean Cleanup’s mission is to remove 50 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every five years.
So how does it work?
The company uses a system that works with the ocean’s natural currents to trap plastic. Using an anchor point and large net, the system can withstand harsh weather and is effective in trapping large amounts of plastic.
In December of 2019, the Ocean Cleanup returned with its first load of trash. It collected 60 bags, one cubic meter each, full of plastic plastic waste. The collected items included everything from fishing nets to plastic bags to microplastics one millimeter in size. Trash from this first haul, known as Mission One, represents an area of approximately 14,000 soccer fields.
Back to the source
After starting with the seas, the team moved on to rivers. 80 percent of plastic waste that ends up in the sea floats down just 1,000 rivers worldwide, so this was a logical move to cut the problem off at the source. In rivers, they are not using nets, but rather their ingenious Interceptor boats.
The 24-meter-long (78 feet) vessels resemble a large houseboat and use a curved barrier to catch waste floating downstream. The trash, much of it plastic, is directed to the “mouth” of the barge — which operates autonomously and silently — from where it rolls up a conveyor belt and is dropped into dumpsters. The boat is completely solar powered and, apparently, it is capable of collecting up to 50 tons of waste a day.
The initial test site for this technology is The Klang river in Malaysia. This river alone sends more than 15,000 tons of trash annually into the sea, making it one of the 50 most-polluting rivers across the globe, so it was a logical starting point. It has been highly effective and they are expanding the program. A second boat was stationed in Jakarta, Indonesia and a third system is headed to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The fourth is destined for the Dominican Republic. The ultimate goal? To station one boat in each of the world’s top 1000 most polluting waterways. It’s ambitious, but applicable on a large scale. In 2018, Boyan was named ‘European Entrepreneur of the Year’ by Euronews for his visionary pollution-fighting plan.
After sharing this story, we had many readers ask the question: so what happens to the trash once it is collected? The plastic is transported to shore, cleaned, sorted, and recycled. The organization works with a European recycling partner to sort through the vast amount of waste. The Ocean Cleanup also plans to reuse some of the waste themselves in product creation. They said, “We aim to make products that contain 100 percent plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage patch, with 100 percent of the proceeds going towards continuing our cleanup efforts.”
Other individual cities have also begun ambitious river cleanup initiatives. Jakarta, with a population of 10 million people, is one of Asia’s largest cities. After repeated flooding caused damage, disease, and displaced residents, the Jakarta city administration, with help from international donors and the national governments, began the process of dredging its 17 rivers and canals for the first time since 1970. In addition to removing the 20 percent of the city’s daily waste that ends up in local rivers and canals, the process also removed 120 million cubic feet of sediment which had piled up and exacerbated flooding.
In Amsterdam, another city famous for its waterways, the city is piloting new technology dubbed the Great Bubble Barrier to reduce waste in its canals. As air bubbles are strategically released, they are able to work in conjunction with the canal’s flow to collect the garbage in concentrated areas where it is then collected. The system is simple, yet effective. In trial runs, it was able to collect 86 percent of trash moving through a waterway.
From removing plastic to restoring waterways
Water is one of our most vital central resources as humans. Plastic that enters waterways slowly breaks down into micro pieces that infiltrate entire ecosystems. Removing these threatening plastics from our waterways is critical, but plastic is not the only pollutant damaging our water. Chemical pollutants, toxic algae, and rising carbon absorption also pose a very serious threat to delicate ponds, rivers, and oceans.
Different strategies are being employed to protect waterways from these pollutants. There is a movement to grant Lake Erie legal sovereignty to protect it from deadly algae caused by agricultural run off. The National Recreation and Park Association works to restore waterways by building public parks in floodplains which work to restore and naturalize channels, stabilize streambanks, remove invasive species, restore freshwater wetlands, improve groundwater recharge, and re-establish greenspace. Their pilot program in Taos, New Mexico will restore 7 acres of wetlands and 13 acres of fallow land while providing a space for outdoor recreation and education.
John Todd Ecological Design’s mission to heal the earth
Fortunately, scientist and author Dr. John Todd knows there are “Many ways to serve Earth and people willing to involve themselves in the process.”
Dr. John Todd is the author of Healing Earth, and has made a career out of innovative solutions for solving ecological disasters. Specifically, he is focused on protecting water resources. He began his research studying the impact of agricultural chemicals on fish before going on to form the New Alchemy Institute in 1969. He concentrated on how humans could live in symbiosis with the natural world around them and use science to help them do so. In 1988, he founded John Todd Ecological Design with the help of his son, Jonathan Todd.
In the beginning of his book he says, “I am writing this book based on the belief that humanity will soon become involved in a deep and abiding worldwide partnership with nature.”
When waste water was polluting local groundwater in Cape Cod, Todd designed a system that used cylindrical fiberglass tanks which allowed sunlight to enter, creating cultivated algae and rich biodiversity to clean the toxic water. The best part? These small microenvironments were self-sustaining and used natural principles to clean the water.
A large issue facing global water ecosystems is the murky water phenomenon: as waters become murky, less sunlight reaches organisms, photosynthesis is reduced, habitats are less oxygenated, and fish ecosystems are devastated as a result. This occurs in part due to soil loss. For example, England has lost over four million tons of soil a year for the past 25 years. Todd says a common mistake is using chemicals to fix chemical driven issues.
His innovative solution is an alternative to chemical fixes. He designed floating restorative parks that work to circulate and aerate water, feed water with beneficial organisms and nutrients, serve large volumes of water, and allow water to flow through carbon rich environments.
For restoring the health of streams that feed into waterways, he designed ecological pipelines to aerate water and promote biodiversity. These “aqua forests” divert streams through plant rich environments such as biodiverse tanks and then discharge the cleaned water back into the river’s flow.
South African Sewage Systems
In South Africa, his wife Nancy’s birth place, he turned to sewage system management as a vehicle for water protection. He uses trees as “phototropic soil makers” in sewage flow pathways. These pits are filled with a combination of charcoal, seashells, wood chips, compost, and fungal species. Then, a tree is planted above the pit to keep the soil aerated while sewage water flowing underground is cleaned by the combination of materials. This design plan also prevents erosion for an overall cleaner and more sustainable sewage system.
At the heart of all his designs is the belief that nature needs to inspire design. Beginning with this principle, we can create systems that protect and nurture nature, while providing for the food and shelter needs of human populations. And Todd believes it can be done. He says, “I am an optimist at heart.”
Influenced by his father’s scientific work, as well as his experience in the Merchant Marines, Jonathan Todd has focused his work on improving the health of California waterways. He helped design the Omega Center for Sustainable Living which offers educational programs for a regenerative future.
He is currently working on two primary restoration projects. At Lago Santa Margarita, the ecosystem restoration system just completed its first successful year. In 2014, the lake experienced a full fish kill due to golden algae blooms, but now, fish populations are bouncing back and there is no longer detectable golden algae in the water. The system uses the floating botanical island technology to employ underwater root systems to oxygenate the lake’s water to keep algae at bay. The lake’s management team says, “The return of fisher birds, reduced insect activity, and improved water quality are signs that the Lake’s ecosystem is re-balancing.”
Todd says, “Diversity is the main thing you’re trying to design into anything.” Helping nature by imitating its natural dynamics is key to sustainable restoration. Once the systems are set up, they take minimal maintenance but achieve long term benefits for ecosystems. “The older the systems get, the more robust and effective they get, but there are still certain things we need to do like pruning biomass and maintenance of variation systems,” says Todd.
So what’s next? Todd aims to install these systems in lakes all over California to mitigate detrimental ecological damage from climate change as well as agricultural and urban runoff. Todd says he would also like to address larger projects like the toxic runoff from the Tijuana River which is polluting Imperial Beach in San Diego. He also wants to work towards reforming agricultural small municipality wastewater lagoons that are out of compliance.
At a time in our history when our natural resources are facing extreme pressure and threats from human activity, innovative scientific solutions are on the frontlines fighting for ecosystem restoration. Paired with these reparative solutions is the logical question: how must we adjust our habits as humans to eliminate this pollution in the first place? Policies and companies which help reduce single use plastics such as government bans and compostable and reusable packaging are helpful for mitigating the issue in the first place. Likewise, regenerative agriculture practices can help create sustainable food and soil systems to reduce harmful runoff.
Altering our behaviors at their damaging source is a great plan, but creative scientific solutions that work towards solving the damage already done are also critical to facilitate the transition towards living in harmony with Earth’s natural ecosystems. Boyan Slat and John and Jonathan Todd both cultivated ambitious dreams early in life: achieve human symbiosis with natural systems by cleaning up areas of the earth we have polluted. They dreamed big and their ideas sparked massive movements which have benefited global waterways and the species that rely on them, including humans. The vast number of water cleanup and restoration initiatives happening all around the world are a testament to what change can be achieved when we work together to protect our most vital resource.
About the Author:
Amelia Buckley is a staff writer for the Optimist Daily and pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a global studies major and lover of the outdoors, Amelia is passionate about crafting stories that focus on critical global issues that impact our environment and natural spaces.