Plastics in the sea are choking marine life and birds, entering the food chain and even the food we eat. Boyan Slat, the Dutch inventor who founded The Ocean Cleanup, would like to clean up the oceans – but a good place to start would be to capture plastic before it reaches the sea. That would also stop salt water from turning the trash into micro-plastic particles.
It's a race against time. More than eight million tons of plastic end up in the sea every year, and they become more dangerous for marine fauna as they break up and are mistaken for food. Almost all Pacific albatrosses now have plastic fragments in their stomachs. Plastic kills more than a million seabirds every year, according to UNEP.
Startlingly to most people - nearly 90 percent of the plastic that ends up in the ocean reached there by one of ten great rivers, the most polluted in the world: Yangtze, Nile, Ganges, Indus, Yellow River, Hai he, Pearl River, Amur, Niger and Mekong. Fabio Dalmonte, 36, now living in London, discovered this while participating in a joint research project on waste management conducted by his alma mater, the University of the West of Scotland, and the Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta. Dalmonte, now a consultant in London for a company specializing in environmental issues, was astonished by the huge amount of debris floating down the Ciliwung River in Jakarta.
"In some parts of Asia, rivers are treated like a dumpster, and the consequences are there for all to see in the world's seas," he says.
Clearly the best would be to prevent the plastic deluge from even reaching the sea, and thus Dalmonte came up with a system of barriers, to catch garbage and send it to recyclers, without hindering boats and fish. With Mauro Nardocci, an executive coach in New York, he founded a startup called SEADS, an acronym for Sea Defense Solutions.
SEADS begat Blue Barriers, a system suitable to any river, from the Nile to the Ganges.
"There are two floating barriers, positioned diagonally on the river and slightly offset, creating a current that transports waste to the bank, where a collection basin is built to accumulate, collect and then send the waste to be sorted," explains Dalmonte.
The barriers are made of recycled plastic, rigid and resistant enough to survive floods or the impact of large objects carried by currents, such as trees.
A demonstration test will be conducted this month in Italy, on the Lamone river, and negotiations with the municipality of Jakarta to test the system on the Ciliwung are also well underway.
"The mountain of waste that ends up in the Ciliwung and then in the sea, accumulating on the islands in front of the Gulf of Jakarta, ruins the beaches, damages tourism and causes serious problems to local communities,” notes Dalmonte, “not to mention environmental damage such as a reduction of the fish population in the sea and the rivers."
Ideally, the barriers should be installed as close as possible to the mouth of the river, but the municipality of Jakarta would like to place several of them at different heights, to establish greater control over the river. Next to each couple of barriers, sorting centers will be created, which could also receive waste from nearby urban and industrial areas, so as to generate profits for local communities.
The project is expected to bring social benefits as well. "In Jakarta and developing countries in general, many poor people collect their own waste to recycle and sell it,” says Dalmonte, “One of our parallel goals is to involve them in the activities that will be created around the barriers. We would like to make it possible for the municipality to include rag pickers in the waste collection system, providing them with adequate working conditions." In this way, everyone will benefit.
This article is being published as part of Earth Beats, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 18 news media outlets from around the world to focus on solutions to waste and pollution.
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