activism environment waste

How river plastics feed ocean plastics

It’s been a while since I checked in on The Ocean Cleanup, the ambitious not-for-profit that is working on solutions to remove plastic from the oceans. They’ve made some very big strides, and the world’s biggest cleanup has begun in earnest. Their prototype machines are at work on the seas, but they’re also moving towards solving the upstream problem of how plastic gets there in the first place.

In this short documentary, founder Boyan Slat travels the route of the Rio Motagua in Guatemala, showing how plastics from the city enter the river and end up in the sea, and finally on beaches. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the plastic problem presented as starkly as this does in ten minutes.

The Ocean Cleanup address river pollution with a variety of solutions, including a simple fence that catches floating plastic while letting water run through. There’s also the interceptor – a net connected to a waste extraction barge. Eventually, they plan to place these on the 1,000 rivers that are the biggest sources of ocean plastics, and turn off the flow of waste.

Of course, it can be turned off higher up than that. Ultimately the world needs to use less plastic. Citizens and their governments need to choke it off at the start, and then we ought to make the fossil fuel companies pay to clean up the mess. But in the meantime, engineered solutions like the ones Ocean Cleanup are developing have a role in holding back the tide of plastic pollution.


  1. This is heartbreaking – I knew plastic pollution was bad, but not this bad.
    But it seems to me that the problem is that plastic is too cheap – cheap enough for relatively poor countries to use lots of it.
    For pollution from another era, it seems to me that the reason why houses in the UK are so poorly insulated us that coal was cheap – cheap enough for the Victorian and later working classes to use lots of it.
    So in addition to all the essential environmental and waste controls, which are essential, plastic needs to be wildly expensive to encourage alternative uses.
    One possible way to make plastic expensive, whilst also recognizing it’s extreme usefulness is to have a tax based on longevity, For instance £1/gramme divided by the number of days it is expected to last. So use once plastic bags would completely disappear and, for instance, a soft fruit punnet would be way more expensive than the fruit in it, but a plastic water pipe, expected to last over 30 years, would be essentially tax free. This helps with recovery and recycling since long use plastic in high value applications can be economically separated at the end of it’s life.
    One tax-free exception to this regime would be disposable health goods, but again coupled with controlled recovery, quite likely incineration.
    On this last point, and also looking at places like Guatemala, we have stopped recycling what little plastic we do end up with – it is, tellingly, virtually impossible to avoid – since we cannot guarantee that the private and profit orientated waste collection company does not export it to some unfortunate other country. But here in Sheffield, our weekly one bag of mostly plastic waste is incinerated to generate heat and power.

    1. That’s good thinking. It’s not useful to be anti-plastic across the board. But we have to find solutions to reduce it and make it more expensive.

      One thing that might help is to make the companies using it responsible for its disposal. I suspect they would change their tune very fast.

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