Can we rid the ocean from its plastic problem?

Mobula 8 (Credit: Jean-Philippe Mériglier)

Environmental NGO The SeaCleaners is getting ready to test the waters this spring in Indonesia with its brand new plastic collecting boat Mobula 8. The boat will cruise the rivers of Bali, swallowing up large plastic debris as well as microplastics along the way.

“We will clean up the rivers, coastal areas and mangroves, where the plastic is more dense and is still easier to collect, as long as it is not too damaged by UV rays or sea salt and has value in circular economy loops,” said Elise d'Epenoux, head of international communications for The SeaCleaners which is partly based in Geneva.

The nine-metre boat, which was finished last spring, will gather the trash, to be sorted onboard and then handed to local associations ashore, such as the waste recycling trade association APSI.

One of the top contributors to plastic pollution, Indonesia produces around 7.8 million tons of plastic debris every year, of which 346,500 tons end up in the ocean, according to a report by the World Bank. The country has pledged to reduce its waste by 70 per cent by 2025 and Mobula 8 is part of those efforts.

Cleaning the ocean one plastic bit at a time

As public awareness around plastic pollution grows, clean-up initiatives are also becoming increasingly popular. Roughly four million tonnes of plastics pour into the oceans every year.

Scientists have found that plastics pose a threat to 88 per cent of marine species, from turtles and dolphins that choke on plastic bags, to the microscopic phytoplankton in the arctic ingesting nanoplastics, according to a recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

“This boat is meant to be an ambassador ship, a demonstration of what is possible to build today to clean up oceans,” d’Epenoux told Geneva Solutions. “We want to inspire states and companies to build hundreds of Manta and Mobula boats.”

Bali is just the first stop for The SeaCleaners. Other governments in the region including Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia have already shown interest in the project.

But ridding the ocean of its plastic problem is trickier than it sounds. “People that want to clean up the ocean don’t realise how vast and deep it is,” said Joao Sousa, senior programme officer of marine plastics at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“Let’s say you have a swimming pool and you’re asked to empty it with a coffee spoon. You can do it, but it will take forever. What if I tell you that there's a hose at the end of the swimming pool pouring litres of water per second? It will be a never ending task.”

“Clean up operations should be part of emergency measures for particular areas or ecosystems that are severely threatened, but it will never be a solution to that problem in itself, mainly because it's extremely expensive,” said Eirik Lindebjerg, head of the WWF’s No Plastic in Nature initiative.

“It's much cheaper to stop using certain unnecessary plastic products than to have massive industrial operations to try to get plastics out of the ocean.”

This isn’t to say that clean up efforts are not effective, if done correctly. The key is targeting the right places. Around 80 per cent of marine plastic pollution comes from land through rivers and shores. Projects like The SeaCleaner’s can make a difference by focusing on these strategic spots where plastic debris has not broken down into tiny particles that are much more difficult to collect and where it can be reused or recycled and put back into the economy.

Sousa explained that while coastline clean up operations can be expensive the cost of not cleaning is much higher given the impact on the economy, including the tourism sector and fisheries.

Such initiatives are also an effective way of raising awareness and educating people about the problems around plastic, the experts agreed, but the solution to the problem lies elsewhere.

Closing the plastic tap

Most plastic that ends up in the ocean comes from waste mismanagement. Many countries, particularly developing ones, are struggling to deal with the amount of plastic trash that they produce or that they import. Communities often don’t have access to collection services and when they do, waste plants lack the technology or the capacity to manage the different sorts of plastic waste.

“Even if you find a way that every single country properly manages plastic waste, eventually, the amount of plastic that would end up in landfills would be absolutely gigantic,” said Sousa.

“When you put plastic in a landfill, it's like a long-term rental space. While organics will decompose in two weeks or two months, it could take up to four hundred years for plastic to decompose. This space remains locked in time.”

Recycling also presents a whole set of challenges, he added: “What do you do with plastic that you can recycle? Who's going to buy it? Who's going to use it? And for what applications? Does the plastic keep the same characteristics as the virgin material? How many times can it be recycled? There's a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

And not all plastic can be recycled. A study by the Swiss-based Environmental Action found that over half of the ocean’s microplastic pollution comes from paint. “Most things in the world are painted and one of the components of that paint is plastic. That means all bridges, all boats, all infrastructures, all buildings, all signs when they erode, release plastic from the paint,” said Sousa, noting that two other main sources of this type of contamination are tyre wear and synthetic textile fibres.

Treaty talks coming up

As countries gear up to begin negotiations for a plastics treaty in one week, environmentalists are pushing for an agreement that tackles the plastic crisis at its source and curbs the production and use of plastics.

“You close the tap by acting upon sources. That’s how you clean up the ocean in the long run,” Sousa said.

As things stand now, plastic pollution will keep growing as production is projected to double by 2040, according to WWF’s report. This is an unsustainable scenario, according to Lindebjerg.

“The treaty will not be a silver bullet and won't solve the problem but it will probably be the most important piece of policy legislation for solving the problem of marine plastic pollution,” he said.

Currently there are two competing resolutions for a binding plastics treaty at the UN Environment Assembly which will be held from 28 February to 2 March in Nairobi. One of the proposals, led by Rwanda and Peru and backed by over 50 countries, focuses on plastics throughout its life span, potentially opening the door for further measures to reduce plastic production.

Japan has submitted another text that focuses exclusively on marine plastic pollution, suggesting that measures will mainly focus on tackling plastic waste.

There’s another proposal by India to create a framework to tackle plastics but which would rely on voluntary commitments by countries. Advocates fear that it could derail efforts for a legally binding agreement. However, support from countries for an agreement is growing, with now 180 governments having publicly expressed support for a global treaty, according to the WWF.