Why do we need to collect plastic waste?

What is the purpose of clean-up operations on land and at sea?

One sentence will remain from the World Conservation Congress. It was pronounced by the American actor Harrison Ford. We are ambitious for perfect solutions, perfect policies, nobody’s got that luxury anymore, we got to get to work, we got to make things happen, we got to make it happen now”  

Faced with this sense of urgency, some people continue to oppose, in a dangerous sophism, long-term prevention and education actions, to immediate curative actions of cleaning up floating plastic waste.  Their argument? The scourge of plastic pollution is now so widespread that there is no point in trying to collect the waste that is pouring out in continuous streams, it is only necessary to ‘close the plastic tap at the source’. 

There is thus a point on which all NGOs, institutions and activists agree: to get rid of plastic pollution, we must first put an end to single-use plastic. Europe, a good student, plans to put an end to single-use plastic on its territory by 2040 (bottles, cans, bags and packaging), in 19 years.  

But what can be done while waiting for these policies, however virtuous they may be, to produce their effect? Every year, 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of this plastic are dumped into the oceans..[1].  At this rate, if nothing drastic is done, plastic pollution will have tripled by 2040 and there will be 50 kilos of waste per kilometer of coastline in the world. dans le monde.[2]

The facts are stubborn… and public action is too slow to reverse the tide of plastic that threatens the ocean.  

This pollution is accumulating, despite the speeches, and Yvan Bourgnon has witnessed it firsthand:  “Between 2013 and 2015, I sailed around the world in a small catamaran. I sailed in the Indian Ocean and there, clearly, I sailed in plastic waste for nearly two months. It was a shock. Sometimes I had to stop 40 times a day because the waste was stuck in my rudders, in my daggerboards. I had been lucky enough to do that same circumnavigation as a child, and when I talk about it with my parents, they tell me they never had to pick up a piece of plastic waste in the sea.”   

It is this feeling of revolt and disbelief, this refusal to give in in the face of the rampant ‘plasticization’ of the oceans, that led to the birth of The SeaCleaners in 2016.

The teams and some 1,500 volunteers involved in the association are now fighting every day to raise awareness about the scourge of plastic pollution, to pass on eco-actions, to learn how to put an end to our dependence on plastics. Because the best waste will always be the one we do not produce. But the fight must also continue urgently at sea, where The SeaCleaners is fighting for the restoration of marine ecosystems by implementing innovative solutions to collect and recycle plastic waste with its emblematic factory boat, the Manta, and the Mobula multi-purpose cleanup boats.   

Thus, as of this year, the Mobula 8 will be operational in Indonesia, where we are working with local partners (associations, institutions, companies) to not only clean up rivers, calm waters and mangroves, but also to recover waste and contribute to structuring local circular economy loops.  

With the Manta, The SeaCleaners will concentrate its plastic collection actions at sea along the coasts and at the mouths of large rivers. Why?  The latest scientific publications confirm that 1,000 rivers account for 80% of the plastic waste dumped into the oceans. Small urban rivers are among the most polluting. Scientists are encouraging the targeted development of mitigation strategies and technologies to reduce river plastic emissions.[3] 

Yvan Bourgnon made this observation in 2015: “I had been told, ‘At sea, there are only micro-particles of plastic,’ but in fact there are not. On a coastal strip of 0 to 50 miles, there are often large concentrations of plastics, fishermen’s nets, water bottles, plastic bags, waste that is still in its original state. I thought, ‘The ocean has become a garbage can.”

Collecting plastics in targeted areas near these rivers and coasts, where the waste slicks are concentrated, means acting before they degrade, fragment, become micro-plastics, drift, sink and become unrecoverable. 

A single collection device, however effective, will not by itself ‘clean’ the oceans of plastic. But these actions remains essential:  

  • Collecting floating plastics today, before they get too degraded is to limit the proliferation of tomorrow’s irrecoverable micro-particles and the dispersion of waste slicks
  • Plastics at sea are an immediate danger for all marine life. Today, no less than 3,765 marine species (microbes, plants and animals) are listed as being in direct contact with plastic. Each piece of waste collected is therefore one less threat to biodiversity. 
  • Collecting plastic is to make visible this pollution that is choking our oceans and to participate in raising awareness. For The SeaCleaners, the first of the awareness-raising actions is also collecting.
  • Collecting slicks of waste is also a way to better understand plastic pollution and to advance research. There are still many unknowns about the origin of plastic, its capacity to decompose at sea, its impact on biodiversity, the characterization of slicks, the modeling of their drift and their location.

In a long-term battle like the fight against ocean plastic pollution, we collectively need intermediate, visible and concrete victories to maintain mobilization, engage communities and think together about solutions. This is what an action as visible as the mass collection of plastic waste at sea brings.

All together, by combining our strengths, our ideas and our solutions, we will one day achieve a world free of plastic addiction. Until then, we must continue our efforts: continue to collect plastics, on land and at sea, continue to educate, raise awareness, develop scientific research and learn from our actions on the ground. 




Notes & references

[1] Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Jambeck et al, 13 Feb 2015, Vol 347, Issue 6223. Science

[2] Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution, Lau, Shiran et al, 18 Sep 2020, Vol 369, Issue 6510, Science

[3] More than 1000 rivers account for 80% of global riverine plastic emissions into the ocean , April 30, 2021 • Meijer, L.J.J. et al, Science