It is one of those simple ideas that is taking on a big task – protecting the environment by catching the plastic waste in the rivers before it flows into the ocean. It led one man in Baltimore to develop a whole family of ‘trash wheels’, and a nonprofit in the Netherlands to develop what it calls the ‘interceptor’.
The Ocean Cleanup has now put four interceptors to work in Jamaica, with the latest – 011 – being placed in Kingston Harbour, and it has gotten impressive reviews from California, where 007 collected more than 35,000 pounds of trash in Ballona Creek, which flows into Santa Monica Bay. The floating barrier had been put in place a month earlier.
California – Ocean Cleanup photo
As rain fell during the two-day rainstorm in November, trash collected against the barrier while a solar-powered conveyor belt, inside a floating platform, pulled it out of the water and dropped it into dumpsters on an attached barge to take it away for sorting and recycling. The pilot project attracted widespread interest, judging by peoples’ reactions shown in a video.
In 2022, the Ocean Cleanup also trialled a new approach to halt a ‘trash tsunami’ in what may be one of the world’s most polluted rivers – the Rio Motagua, the largest river in Guatemala, stretching from the western highlands to the Caribbean Sea. An urban landfill sits on top of the Rio Las Vacas, which flows into the Rio Motagua, and during the rainy season, that tributary turns into a river of garbage that is shocking. So shocking that it required a specific kind of solution – the Interceptor Trashfence, which it is working to perfect.
Since January 2021, interceptor 004 has been stationed in the Rio Ozama in the Dominican Republic, after an experimental phase in 2020 that was complicated by COVID and an onslaught of water hyacinths uprooted by tropical storm Laura.
Interceptor 004 launching in the Dominican Republic, summer 2020 (Ocean Cleanup)
Ocean Cleanup is focusing on cleaning up the 1,000 heaviest polluting rivers in the world, as a way of addressing its goal to clean up the ocean. The 20,000 tonnes of plastic trash that flows from the Rio Las Vacas into the Rio Motagua every year, ends up in the Caribbean Sea and is equal to about two per cent of the world’s overall plastic emissions to the oceans, it says. This is more than all airplanes contribute to global CO2 emissions – 1.9%.
“Our estimates suggest that stopping the flow of plastic in this one river could have a proportionally similar reductive impact on plastic emissions as the elimination of all air travel would have on carbon emissions,” says Ocean Cleanup. In 2022, it collected 153,314 kilograms of garbage in oceans and intercepted 838,859 kilograms of trash in rivers, bringing its all time total to more than two million kilograms. In 2021, it delivered more than eight tonnes of garbage from the Pacific to Victoria, B.C. It is looking forward to 2023 as yet another year of achievement.
A similar approach in Panama, led by an environmental organization called Marea Verde, is cleaning up one of that country’s most polluted rivers – the Juan Diaz River. It uses a trash-collecting wheel, Wanda Diaz, which is powered with hydraulic and solar power and uses a camera system and artificial intelligence to analyze waste and provide data for public education and policy.
And in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, retired marine police officer Tony Fan has teamed up with a local NGO, the Clean Waterways Initiative, which had begun working with HSBC to tackle pollution in the harbour. “Fan immediately jumped on board as captain of one of its boats specially designed to pick up trash from Hong Kong’s harbours. There are currently four of these solar-powered, zero-emissions vessels operating in the city as part of this joint effort, called the HSBC Clean Waterways Programme.”
HSBC Clean Waterways Programme
The trash is collected in Victoria and Aberdeen Harbours using a fleet of solar-powered, zero-emissions boats – the Wayfoong Explorer, Solar Explorer, Aqua Explorer and Harbour Explorer. Since the boats started operating in December 2020, more than 76,000 plastic bottles and 28,000 aluminium cans have been collected.
An intriguing footnote. In designing its interceptor, the Ocean Cleanup team used Lego, and in turn, Lego enthusiasts have created models of the project. And Lego has contributed to awareness raising around the issue of ocean pollution, as a result of a 1997 marine accident in which 62 containers were swept into the ocean by a rogue wave, spilling almost five million Lego pieces into the ocean.
In L.A., this sleek barrier kept 35,000 pounds of trash out of the ocean. Fast Company, Jan. 4, 2023
The Ocean Cleanup website.
The Ocean Cleanup trials new interceptor in world’s most polluting river. Ocean Cleanup, Jun. 1, 2022
‘Part whimsical, part doom-laden.’ What 5 million Lego pieces lost at sea can tell us about plastic in the ocean. Toronto Star, Jun. 25, 2022
On a mission to clean up Hong Kong’s polluted waters. Morning Studio, Dec. 29, 2021
Trash interceptor weathers the storms, sparing Pacific from thousands of pounds of garbage. Los Angeles Times, Mar. 21, 2023