Three innovative ways making a difference in cleaning up the world's waterways

Don't give up hope! Optimism is key to finding ways to clean up the waterways leading to our oceans. After all, somebody has to believe that ridding the world of the infinitely harmful plastic waste in our oceans is possible. How else will they be inspired to take a crack at solving the problem? So, dream on dreamers! Here are three ways that innovative thinkers are making a difference.

The Bubble Barrier

Who would think that bubbles could save the day? It can and it is. The Bubble Barrier is a creation of four innovators who took on the self-imposed challenge of reducing plastics from the waterways, and The Bubble Barrier was born. It's now being used in Amsterdam.

The Bubble Barrier is quite an impressive name but the question remains, "What does it do?" Installed in October 2019, it uses an air compressor to send air through a perforated tube running diagonally across the Westerdock Canal. The system generates a stream of bubbles that blocks plastic, along with other trash, and guides it to a catchment system.

The system is unobtrusive. It allows for the natural flow of marine life and does not impede ships passing through the canal. The Bubble Barrier diverts 86 percent of plastics away from the ocean— a stunning amount of trash. So the system is also an enormous win! The Bubble Barrier accomplishes the vital feat of protecting birds, fish and other marine life from ingesting plastics and micro plastics that would have otherwise passed through.

The Great Bubble Barrier is the company that is bringing the Bubble Barrier technology to waterways around the world. Now that the technology is proven, the company's immediate goal is to bring the Bubble Barrier to Asia, which houses 8 of the 10 most polluted rivers.

Fun fact: Three of the inventors of The Bubble Barrier went to a bar and discussed the problem of cleaning up the waterways. They observed the way the bubbles in their beer corralled themselves to the top side of their glass and that observation was part of the inspiration for the technology.

The Inner Harbor Water Wheel AKA 'Mr. Trash Wheel'

Since 2014, Baltimore's Inner Harbor Water Wheel—known more commonly as Mr. Trash Wheel—has been aiding the city's fight for clean waterways. Shaped like your friendly neighborhood mollusk, it is the world's first sustainably powered trash interceptor. The technology runs on a combination of hydro and solar power and the 50-foot long machine has collected over 3 million pounds of trash and prevented its travel into the harbor.

Mr. Trash Wheel is not alone. The family of trash wheels is ever-growing. There is Professor Trash Wheel, Captain Trash Wheel, and just added in March 2021 is Gwynnda the Good Wheel of the West. Each one helps to clean up waterways in and around the city.

Here's how it works:

  • Containment booms capture trash flowing down the river then funnels it through the mouth of the water wheel.
  • The power of the sun (on the solar panels) and the river's current help to power the rake, which lifts the trash onto the conveyor belt. From the conveyor belt, the trash goes onto the water wheel where it ultimately pushes it into the dumpster.
  • The dumpster sits on its own floating barge. When full, it is towed away and replaced with another dumpster.

Plastic sorting technology is not available at this time so the collected trash is incinerated in order to create electricity. You can find out the latest activity for the growing family of water wheels on the Mr. Trash Wheel website and social media.

The Plastic Bank

Preventing disposed plastics from reaching the ocean is a great cause all on its own. Now add the benefit of helping the poor financially support themselves and you have a business model that is incredibly smart and admirable. Plastic Bank is a social enterprise that builds networks of people who collect ocean-bound plastics. This ethical recycling ecosystem has been established in some of the poorest coastal communities. Currently, The Plastic Bank has locations in Haiti, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The latest site is in Egypt.

David Katz, CEO and founder of Plastic Bank, has a great passion for cleaning up the ocean. Recognizing that 80 percent of ocean plastic comes from the world's most impoverished areas, the Plastic Bank gives incentives to collect discarded plastic in their area. Once verified and weighed, the collectors—referred to as Plastic Bank members—receive digital tokens in their Plastic Bank account.

Members can cash out or use their earned tokens toward groceries, sustainable cooking fuel, health insurance, or tuition, among other things. It's no small thing for those who make less than a dollar a day. The money helps to pay rent, provide education and incrementally improve their standard of life.

After collection, The Plastic Bank sorts the plastic by color and type then washes and flakes it and reprocesses it. They even have a proprietary Blockchain platform, which ensures transparency for the whole transaction.

"I see Social Plastics as the bitcoin for the earth."

~David Katz, Plastic Bank, founder and CEO

When it is all said done, the ocean-bound plastics become part of a closed-loop supply chain and are re-introduced with the label "Social Plastics." Brands like Windex from SCJohnson proudly show their green participation and pride displaying that their packaging is made with 100 percent ocean-bound plastic. Other companies like Henkel, Shell Energy, IBM, Aldi, and Logitech are all doing the same.

The Plastic Bank and Social Plastics are tremendous models of ingenuity, determination, compassion. Founder David Katz was even awarded the United Nations Lighthouse award for Planetary Health among a litany of others. In his TED Talk, Katz revealed that this big idea is not the end of his vision by far, saying, "I see Social Plastics as the bitcoin for the earth." So what is there to say except, "Dream on dreamer."