In January 2016, 29 sperm whales washed up on the North Sea coast. Their stomachs contained an alarming amount of plastic. Biologists reported that the large pieces could block their intestines, while very small pieces may cause chronic problems (The Guardian). Clearly, plastics in our seas are a big problem for the marine environment, and for the health of our ecosystems it is crucial that we take steps to address it.
The Ocean Cleanup aims to do just that. This fantastic idea, now fully crowdfunded, uses technology to capture floating plastic in some of the most polluted areas of our seas. It could make a significant contribution to the recovery of our oceanic ecosystems, and I am extremely proud that we at Royal HaskoningDHV have played a role in the project. We were asked for our support in undertaking an ecological assessment for its prototype ‘catchment screen’.
Over the past few years The Ocean Cleanup has developed an innovative method to remove plastic from the oceans. It uses floating, impenetrable screens that stop and collect plastic using ocean currents.
Since The Ocean Cleanup started in 2013, a number of studies have been undertaken to improve the design of the project. This has led to the development of a 100m wide prototype that will soon be deployed off the Dutch coast to test the design’s durability and logistics. After review, a 2km-wide pilot study will take place off the coast of Japan, where the capture of plastic will be put to the test.
Ecological impacts of the prototype
Legislative requirements in the North Sea mean that the environmental impact of any new initiatives must be assessed. For The Ocean Cleanup this meant considering whether chemicals may be released into the water column and whether marine mammals, birds and fish would be impacted by the floating screens and moorings. The Ocean Cleanup approached Royal HaskoningDHV to investigate the potential impacts the prototype may have under European Union and Dutch environmental legislation.
Our assessment concluded that due to the small scale and temporary nature of the prototype, there would be no impacts on marine organisms or the benthic environment. This is great news, though it is worth noting that the assessment only covers the impacts of the prototype, and not the final installation that will remove plastic from the world’s oceans. A full environmental impact assessment will be required on the final design, specific to its location.
The methodology that The Ocean Cleanup is proposing to use has, naturally, come in for some criticism. Critics have said that it would be better to prevent litter from entering the environment altogether, or that the focus should be on removing litter along the coast and on the shore. Questions have also been raised about how litter will be caught and exactly what the ecological impacts will be.
These are valid and understandable areas of concern. Not all ecological impacts have been considered and it cannot be said with 100 per cent certainty that the system will function as intended. This is a fact for any innovation, however. As with any innovative idea it is a long process to get from the original concept to the final product being realised. It wasn’t any different when Steve Jobs started out!
Let’s address some of that criticism. We should certainly avoid more plastic entering the oceans through recycling - we should be re-using items and reducing the use of plastic in the first place. In the Netherlands, banning free plastic bags from retailers seems to have made a difference. We should also definitely try to remove as much plastic from beaches to stop it from entering the ocean. But this doesn’t take away the fact that we should be removing the large amounts of plastic that are currently circling our oceans – and before they disintegrate in to fragments too small to be collected. All of these efforts combined are required to tackle the problem of oceanic plastic.
The Ocean Cleanup is an inspiring and admirable project. It has rolled up its sleeves to tackle a major problem head on. They are leading the way and, I hope, will motivate many others to deliver the environmental changes that we need to keep our planet and its wildlife safe and healthy.