World Oceans Day: Awaken New Depths in Ocean Cleanups

Happy World Oceans Day 2024!

This important United Nations event takes place on 8th June every year. It spotlights the considerable challenges faced in the world’s pursuit of sustainability, and champions the Sustainable Development Goals listed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. With innumerable aspects of the maritime industry shifting focus towards the protection of the ocean, one cause in particular has been garnering support for its direct hands-on approach to environmental sustainability: cleanups.

Cleanups are the collective community’s way of taking a practical stand against the constant pollution plaguing our oceans. From large-scale operations in the North Pacific Ocean to a single person trawling through the sunny shores of Singapore, cleanups are organized in all shapes and sizes, but not without considerable effort.

Given the ubiquity of plastic in the environment, further exacerbated by its persistent nature and slow degradation rate, the problem has already spiraled far beyond the eye of the general public and has the potential to cause irreparable damage. Legacy oceanic plastic pollution is a major concern with the potential to significantly impact ecosystems for centuries. Cleanup initiatives are therefore essential to preserve the tenuous state of our oceans and avoid even more negative effects that could last for decades.

Plastic waste gathered in the ocean
Plastic waste gathered in the ocean / Designed by Freepik

Spearheading the efforts to clean up our oceans is Dutch nonprofit environmental engineering organization The Ocean Cleanup. Founded in 2013 by prolific inventor Boyan Slat, The Ocean Cleanup develops ocean and river systems which are deployed around the world to help clean up trillions of plastic particles that pollute the waters.

The Ocean Literacy Portal, a UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, projects that by 2050 the amount of plastic present is likely to outweigh all the fish in the sea. With around 8 to 10 million metric tonnes of plastic ending up in the ocean every year, plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution.

The extent of the plastic pollution is worsened by the difficulties associated with retrieving tiny particles like microplastics from the vast open ocean. Microplastics especially pose a significant risk to the health of our ecosystem, and even to ourselves, all while causing irreversible harm to wildlife around the world.

It’s been estimated by the World Wide Fund for Nature that approximately 100,000 marine mammals are killed by plastic pollution every year, either after ingesting plastic debris or getting entangled in it. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), plastic pollution can alter habitats and natural ecosystems, which directly affects millions of livelihoods as well as the planet’s food production capabilities and social well-being.

So what are we doing to stop it?

Most of the plastic in the seas is gathered in oceanic areas known as gyres, which are massive circular currents that can trap the floating plastic for years. The infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is in the center of one such gyre, infamous as the most polluted one of the five major ones in the oceans.

Located in the North Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains around 100 million kilograms of plastic that are littered across an area so large it’s three times the size of Thailand. As time goes on, the plastic continually degrades and fragments into smaller pieces, becoming even harder to clean up. The problem of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will not simply resolve itself when left to fester on its own, and that is where The Ocean Cleanup finds its niche in the sustainability field.

The Ocean Cleanup’s innovative solution to the problem is their proprietary contraption aptly named ‘System 03’. It’s comprised of a floating barrier shaped into the letter U propelled by two manned vessels at either end, and a screen that extends 4 meters beneath the surface of the water. As the vessels move forward, the garbage in the ocean gets caught within the retention zone of the system at the apex of the U.

Given the unsteady nature of the floating plastics, The Ocean Cleanup first uses computational modeling to predict the locations of the most concentrated areas of the garbage patch. Their cleanup systems are then deployed in these locations. When the retention area is full, it is detached and emptied on board the vessel, before being placed back into the water. The reusable aspect of the mechanism is the cherry on top of the entire sustainable system.

Afterwards, the plastic residue is put to good use—The Ocean Cleanup recycles it all to make products like sunglasses, the sales of which help to fund future ocean cleanups. Previous batches of collected plastic have even been incorporated into electric vehicles via a seven-year Global Partnership deal between Kia and The Ocean Cleanup.

By 2040, The Ocean Cleanup estimates that it will be able to remove at least 90% of the plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by scaling up their technology to meet the proportional demands of the gyre. With System 003, which is nearly thrice the size of the previous System 002 and can cover much more ground in the same timeframe, the cost per kilogram of plastic removed decreases and the entire process becomes exponentially more efficient, not to mention economically feasible.

Besides the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, The Ocean Cleanup has another strategy for cleaning up plastic pollution in our waters: the Interceptors, deployed in rivers all over the world to catch plastic debris before it flows out into the ocean. Each interceptor is tailored to suit the various needs of individual rivers, ranging from special guards for shallow waters to tougher barricades for high-pressure events like rainy seasons.

With its hands-on approach to tackling plastic pollution and a two-pronged solution to the problem, namely intercepting the trash flow from rivers and removing legacy plastics from the oceans, The Ocean Cleanup is a champion of practical sustainability at the very forefront of innovation.

Trash on a sandy beach / Designed by Freepik

Closer to home, initiatives to remove plastic waste from the marine environment around Singapore have taken off under an Ocean Impact organization based in Indonesia and aptly named Seven Clean Seas. Describing themselves as environmental stewards, the organization works to nurture sustainable ecosystems for future generations while empowering local communities.

According to the Seven Clean Seas Annual Impact Report 2023, a total of 1,785,747 kilograms of plastic was recovered from the seas last year, representing a 389% increase from the year before. In addition, the organization held a whopping 1488 plastic collection events, and cleaned up a cumulative 114,509 meters of distance.

Seven Clean Seas’ holistic approach towards combating plastic pollution involves not only empirical action, but also social empowerment in the form of ethical employment, gender equality, and education. Building social impact into projects is an important and intrinsic part of Seven Clean Seas’ working ideology, in order to ensure positive sustainable progress and shared prosperity among local communities.

Seven Clean Seas currently oversees four projects in the Southeast Asia region: Batam, Bintan Island, the Bengkong River in Indonesia, and the Chao Phraya River in Thailand. With each project, the organization offers employment to plenty of locals from coastal communities, who are given formal contracts and are paid fairly—a rarity in the industry.

In Batam, due to a dearth of proper waste management and disposal methods, people tend to dump their plastics directly into the waters around their households. Residents are employed to collect and sort plastic from local waters which are then ethically disposed of in various ways.

Elsewhere in Indonesia, plastic debris from polluted waters all around the world are buoyed by the currents to the shores of Bintan Island. On top of waste originating from foreign regions, Bintan Island also faces a problem with local sources of plastic pollution such as consumer packaging and leftover nets from the fishing industry. Improper waste management and precarious seasonal monsoons only exacerbate the issue.

Around the Bengkong River, an accumulation of plastic has resulted in negative impacts on marine life, discoloration in the waters, and a veritable heap of trash choking up the riverway. The solution implemented by Seven Clean Seas is simple: river barriers that can collect the plastic waste before it’s transported out into the sea, while allowing water animals to pass through it.

Over in Thailand, the Chao Phraya River is a major river that emits the most plastic in the country. It transports millions of kilograms of riverine plastic on an annual basis, and microplastic pollution runs rampant through the waterway. To combat this problem, Seven Clean Seas created the solar-powered ‘High Impact Plastic Pollution remOval’ system, also known as HIPPO. The HIPPO functions with a conveyor belt that collects plastic debris before it reaches the ocean and ferries the pieces into the vessel.

The plastic waste gathered doesn’t just get recycled. To keep particularly finicky microplastics out of the environment forever, Seven Clean Seas has a few distinct methods of dealing with it. Apart from traditional recycling where used materials are processed into new products, waste is also converted into a fuel source which then supplies energy to local households. Non-recyclables are transformed into bricks and roof plates among other eco-friendly building materials, which are then given back to the community for their use, replacing hazardous conventional substances like asbestos.


The simple answer is that everyone is, but not everyone has the means to enact change on a large scale. While every action is meaningful, change needs to come from the top-down. And that’s where big corporations are responsible for putting in the work.

To give credit where credit is due, some have stepped up. Danish shipping company Maersk, for example, has worked alongside The Ocean Cleanup to develop and maintain their cleanup systems.

In fact, it’s the Maersk Launcher vessel that tows the system through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, ensuring it can do its job. On top of that, Maersk has implemented countless measures geared towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals outlined in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. From altering vessel speeds and routes in order to reduce their impact on marine life, to making an effort to understand the health of our ocean by equipping weather stations on their ships, Maersk is a proud example of how big corporations can lead the charge in achieving a sustainable future.

Other partners of The Ocean Cleanup include The Coca-Cola Company, which helps to install Interceptors in rivers around the world; Kia, an official Global Partner that contributes financially to aid The Ocean Cleanup’s mission; and other supporting organizations like Deloitte, Macquarie Group, and Societe Generale. Even the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment have endorsed The Ocean Cleanup’s mandate. Meanwhile, Seven Clean Seas boasts a lengthy list of partners as well, with support from Microsoft, Lunar, the FIFA World Cup, The Economist, Einhorn, and Lo Bros.

These companies might not be the ones out in the sea actively collecting plastic, but at the very least, they have shown a degree of self-awareness rarely displayed by corporations of their size and caliber. The responsibility of keeping our oceans clean belongs to everyone and the maritime industry can pave the way towards change.

A world free of plastic pollution seems almost too good to be true, but the dedication of organizations like The Ocean Cleanup and Seven Clean Seas pushes us one step closer with every kilogram of plastic removed from our oceans. Perhaps it’s now time for the rest of us to play our parts as well.

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