Interview with Letitia Floria Communications Manager of Waste Free Oceans.
What is the main goal of Waste Free Oceans? What makes your NGO special and when was it founded?
The primary goal of Waste Free Oceans is to reduce the global impact of ocean pollution. By mobilizing fisheries, recyclers, manufacturers and policymakers, WFO aims to reduce, recycle, reprocess and ultimately reuse marine litter, thereby mitigating the impact on the environment and natural resources. The main tasks of the WFO include the implementation of clean-up operations in the water and on the beach and political support. In addition, efforts are being made to convert the collected plastic into new and innovative products in a circular economy through cooperation with selected partners. Waste Free Oceans was founded in 2011 as an initiative of the European plastics industry to address growing concerns about pollution of our waters. In the meantime, WFO has developed into an independent, globally operating organization that is financed by public donations, project cooperation and corporate partnerships.
Why is water pollution such an important issue for all of us?
The impact of plastic on our marine ecosystem is clear: we have all seen images and videos of turtles and dolphins becoming entangled in discarded fishing nets and plastic packaging - this can lead to injury, strangulation and in the worst cases even death of the creatures. In addition, certain plastics may contain harmful chemicals such as flame retardants, bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, all of which have been shown to be potential carcinogens (substances known to cause cancer) even at low doses. Eventually, as they work their way through the food chain, they also harm the consumers themselves – that is, us humans. It is clear that the amount of plastic entering our oceans needs to be reduced - as well as the debris present in our oceans today. As more and more plastic waste enters our environment, it should be used for resource extraction in order to manufacture new plastic products.
They work with a "waste-to-value" system. What does that mean?
Instead of continuing to make more plastic products by extracting natural resources, we are working on a circular economy principle, using what is already available in our oceans today. Accordingly, we cooperate with companies that share our clear mission of using our resources intelligently and protecting the environment. The collected waste is then further processed and sent to a local recycler for sorting, cleaning and conversion into polymer pellets. The plastic granules are then combined with other polymers to create a new, high-quality product. Our partners then develop the end product and bring it to market.
How does your "Trash Catcher" system work?
Developed and patented by a former fisherman - who was also recognized by the Legion D'Honneur by the French government for his work in cleaning up oil spills - the trawl nets are successfully used by numerous governments as the leading tool in combating heavy pollution in France waters used. The "Trash Catcher" can either be towed with boats of different sizes or, if the body of water is a river, placed statically in the body of water. All local partners are trained accordingly in how to use the network. The trawl can be used in waves up to 1.2 meters. Thanks to its flexibility and strong buoyancy, it can adapt perfectly to the sea surface. Boats with a length of 8-9 meters can navigate the trawls even up to the third level of the Beaufort scale.
How do you ensure that flora and fauna are not damaged?
When developing the "Trash Catcher", care was taken to ensure that only "floating litter" is fished from the water surface, thus minimizing the extent to which aquatic fauna can be adversely affected. Accordingly, the trawl penetrates only 70 cm into the water column (the rest is supported above the waterline). In addition, the fishing vessels operating the trawls operate at very slow speeds averaging 6 knots per hour.
What type of plastic is most valuable for reuse?
Fishing gear (such as fishing nets) accounts for a large part of the waste generated in water bodies and, thanks to its material, can be processed into particularly high-quality recycled raw materials suitable for various uses.
What is the next step after collecting the "Ocean Plastics"? How much plastic usually has to be sorted out?
The collected plastics are then passed on to processors, who recycle the waste and turn it into sustainable products. The costs for this are borne by the partner companies or processors in order to send a clear signal for the responsible use of resources. For example, marine plastic from the Portuguese processor Logoplaste was processed together with the detergent manufacturer Ecover and transformed into a new bottle. Nowadays, companies that use a lot of packaging in particular are showing an increasing interest in using recycled material - an informed and environmentally conscious clientele certainly plays a part in this.
Which partners do you work with?
Waste Free Oceans unites fisheries, the plastics industry and processors with the goal of reducing plastic waste in the sea while reusing it for new products. Fishermen collect so-called "ghost nets", plastic bottles and other plastic waste, recyclers sort and clean the waste, and companies recycle the raw material into a new product.
In which countries does your network work and how are they selected?
The WFO network is spread across Europe, America, Asia and Turkey. The "hotspots", i.e. areas with a high density of marine litter, are identified by our local partners. The previous collection points include, for example, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Bulgaria, Turkey, Hong Kong, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. We work very closely with the local fishermen in this regard, as they are often out and about all year round and therefore have a good overview of the level of pollution in their region. Their familiarity with local water conditions and the necessary technical knowledge and tools make them our ideal partners.
What water pollution facts are you most concerned about?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has drawn attention to the fact that eight million tons of plastic waste end up in our oceans every year. That's the equivalent of a garbage truck dumping its load every minute. If we do nothing, it is projected that by 2025 there will be 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish - and by 2050 there would be more plastic waste than fish in our oceans.
What plans does your NGO have for the future?
Since rivers that flow from inland into the seas in particular are increasingly being identified as the cause of sea litter - and the "top ten" rivers account for 88 to 95 percent of the total global plastic load in the oceans, we would like to focus on this over the next two years place on this area. Last year we launched “Operation Castor” in the Dominican Republic with the aim of collecting waste from the Ozama and Isabela and thus clearing the rivers of pollution. Today we are on the verge of establishing a regional plastic recycling center in the Dominican Republic. We want to educate the local population and bring the best recycling technology in the world to this region. At the same time, we plan to build WFO shelters to respond to the massive housing shortage and future hurricane threats.
What do you think of working with start-ups like us?
We create the decisive bridge between industry and environmental protection - and this at a time when the topic of extended producer responsibility and the circular economy is becoming increasingly important. At the same time, however, the problem of "ocean plastics" must also be addressed through improved waste collection and sorting on land. That's why we welcome collaboration with all companies - big and small, which allows us not only to take a clear stand against marine plastic litter, but also to play an active role in reducing it.
How can industries, but also each and every one of us, help to change something? How can we bring about real change?
There are different approaches to tackle the global problem. Although the focus is on avoiding waste, brand owners and companies can also actively participate in the recycling of waste and thus the creation of new, sustainable products. The value chain begins with collection at sea. As public awareness increases, we are confident that we will forge new partnerships around the world and take even more practical actions to reduce ocean plastics in the future. With the growing global need for action to tackle plastic waste and the ongoing pollution of our water ecosystems, we as an organization aim to continue working on our mission while increasing our operational capacity outside of Europe.
What headline about water would you like to read in the future?
Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG) has been achieved. (Editor's note: The SDG is one of 17 goals set by the United Nations in 2015. It calls for clean water and sanitation for all people.)