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After years of complex tests and trials, the organization Ocean Cleanup now hopes to accelerate the harvesting of waste, especially plastic, thanks to its system deployed in the Pacific Ocean and in some highly polluted rivers. Meanwhile, UN member countries will attempt this week to negotiate a treaty to tackle this global environmental scourge.
The Ocean Cleanup project first attracted attention after being presented in 2012 by a young Dutchman, Boyan Slat, who then aspired to clean up the “plastic continent” of the Pacific Ocean, which is said to have more than 80,000 tons. of waste. But from the original idea to its realization, the project has had a difficult journey. Several attempts have indeed turned out to be failures.
For a little over three years now, however, the operations have “gradually grown”, assures the organization’s spokesperson, Ashley Heijkoop-Horn, in an email exchange with The duty. She explains that in the Pacific, Ocean Cleanup now uses “System 002”, a kind of huge funnel with a diameter of 1320 meters. Pulled by two ships, it concentrates the waste before extracting it from the ocean. The plastic is then recycled.
The organization, which plans to deploy a system with a diameter of 2,500 meters in the near future, regularly publishes images of the waste collected. They are made up of a multitude of types of fishing gear and very diverse plastic objects. Removing them prevents them from degrading into plastic microparticles that can make their way through the food chain.
Nevertheless, plastic pollution remains ubiquitous in the “plastic continent” of the Pacific, because despite all the efforts of Ocean Cleanup, just over 200,000 kilos (200 tons) of waste have been removed from the waters until now. And there are six such masses of plastic in the world. Globally, it is estimated that more than 150 million tonnes are already in the world’s oceans, a number that is expected to double by 2050.
In this context, Ocean Cleanup “deploys a lot of effort” to develop “interceptors” on different rivers, explains Ashley Heijkoop-Horn. These are essentially boats equipped with systems “that make it possible to collect the waste that travels in the rivers before it reaches the oceans”.
Such devices are already in operation in Indonesia, Vietnam, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and California. In all cases, these are waterways that carry large quantities of waste, including plastic. According to the various estimates available, the world’s rivers would also dump between 1.5 and 2.5 million tonnes of plastic each year into the oceans.
By combining the results obtained with the system in operation in the Pacific and the “interceptors”, Ocean Cleanup estimates that it has collected nearly 3.3 million kilos of waste so far. “We estimate that the operations in progress will quickly reach 5 million kilos, then more than 10 million kilos by the end of the year”, underlines Ashley Heijkoop-Horn.
Environmental groups therefore hope that the negotiations which opened on Monday in Paris will allow UN member countries to advance a treaty supposed to reduce plastic pollution.
The stakes are high, as annual production has more than doubled in 20 years, reaching 460 million tonnes. It could still triple by 2060 if nothing is done. However, two-thirds of this global production has a short lifespan and becomes waste to be managed after just one or a few uses.
Globally, less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled, while 22% of it is mismanaged or released into the environment. They are then found in rivers, in the depths of the oceans, in the ice of the poles, in the stomachs of birds and hundreds of marine species, on the tops of mountains, etc. Microplastics have also been detected in blood, breast milk or the placenta.
Plastic also poses a problem for its role in global warming: it represented 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019, 3.4% of global emissions, a figure that could more than double by to 2060, according to the OECD.