Ocean Plastic: “We can catch it before it gets to the Ocean.”

Photo by  Sho Hatakeyama  on  Unsplash

It is difficult to imagine a world without plastics. Plastics have been instrumental to technological advancement and innovation in many fields. They have also improved food hygiene across the globe and reduced food waste by extending the shelf life of produce. Plastics are used in everything from food containers to shoe soles, mobile phones, clothes, car interiors, to name but a few. Notwithstanding the benefits, the world's plastic consumption in recent decades has seen a dramatic increase and with it the resulting plastic waste. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet has spread awareness of the ocean plastic problem, revealing the scale of the issue and its impact on marine ecosystems. Episode 4 of Blue Planet II demonstrated this with the case of 7,000 rubber ducks that were accidentally released into the Pacific Ocean in 1992. Travelling the ocean currents, the toys have been found as far away as Australia, Russia and the High Arctic. One was even found 15 years later on the West Coast of Scotland. Anecdotes such as this one show how plastic can travel, propelled by ocean currents, but most importantly highlights the fact that plastic is an extremely durable material which represents a long-term problem for the environment. According to data produced by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the most durable plastic items, such as bottles or disposable nappies, can take 450 years to biodegrade. Others such as fishing nets remain in the environment for up to 600 years. Plastic bags take about 20 years to degrade but their damage on the environment can be equally as harmful, with single-use bags known to be eaten by a variety of marine wildlife. Plastics not only represents a threat to sea life as the degradation of ocean plastics leads to the release of chemicals and microplastics that enter the food chain. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the volume of plastic waste in our oceans will outweigh the total mass of fish in the sea by 2050. Each year 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea, with just ten rivers carrying 80% of the plastic entering the oceans. Those rivers (two rivers in Africa – the Nile and the Niger – and eight in Asia – the Indus, Ganges, Amur, Mekong, Pearl, Hai he, Yellow and Yangtze ) as well as being some of the world's longest rivers, have significant populations alongside them.

Fabio Dalmonte, an Italian engineer with years of experience in waste management, had direct knowledge of the impact of plastic waste when working in Jakarta on the river Ciliwung. on his return to Europe he decided to launch the start-up SEADS (Sea Defence Solutions) with his long term friend Mauro Nardocci. The idea is based on a simple, effective and long-term solution that aims at stopping and collecting waste before it enters the oceans and that re-directs plastics towards recycling: plastic barriers (made of recycled plastic) to fight plastic waste. The barriers have been designed in collaboration with a team of experts from three Universities (Politecnico di Milano, University of Florence and University of West Scotland). They are light, cost-effective and low maintenance and have been designed to resist any conditions. Once the plastic waste is diverted from the main stream it ends in a collection basin where it can be easily removed. The collected material has then to be sorted and recycled creating, in developing countries, economic opportunities for individuals who collect plastic from rivers - often among the most economically disadvantaged members of society. The start-up has so far patented the technology and will be running a test on a river in northern Italy very soon. They have also established relevant contacts to install the plastic barriers in the region of Jakarta in Indonesia and on Italian and African rivers. Fabio and Mauro’s vision - and final objective - is to be able to install the plastic barriers in all ten rivers responsible for 80% of ocean plastics and we are proud to support this remarkable venture. 

A technical and fascinating article on the history of polymers can be found at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873019/

For facts on ocean plastic pollution:

http://oceancrusaders.org/plastic-crusades/plastic-statistics/

For the NOAA poster on plastic debris:

https://www.whoi.edu/fileserver.do?id=107364&pt=2&p=88817

For further reading on plastic pollution:

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/11/chart-of-the-day-this-is-how-long-everyday-plastic-items-last-in-the-ocean/ and

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/28/a-million-a-minute-worlds-plastic-bottle-binge-as-dangerous-as-climate-change and

http://www.exeter.ac.uk/research/feature/foodchain/