The exceptional mission of this unusual vessel is to rid the seas and oceans of plastic waste. At first glance this might seem like a crazy project given that WWF’s estimated 86 million tons of plastic waste is already in the sea, with an increase of nearly 13 million tons a year. Yet, in its small way, this ship demonstrates how the cleanup operation could work.
Indeed, one of the most pressing challenges today is tackling plastic pollution in the seas and oceans. Environmental organization One Earth – One Ocean has responded to this challenge by developing the Circular Explorer, a Torqeedo solar-electric boat that is already cleaning up Manila Bay.
The launching of the ship
When people gather for a ship christening in the port of Hamburg, it’s usually a ceremony complete with fireworks and catering tables for a mammoth cruise ship or mega-container. But on this misty summer day, the ship tied to the quay is barely 12 meters long and 8 meters wide. At first glance, one cannot even be sure whether it is a boat or a floating dock. Also, there’s no actual event, just a few waiters carrying trays of canapés and bubbly glasses onto the dock. However, all you see are happy faces, camera operators, microphones raised and journalists ready to take notes.
“This project is very special for us, and we are delighted to be playing our part in making the natural environment that bit cleaner,” says Gregor Papadopoulos, Senior Manager Retail at Torqeedo. The Circular Explorer is powered by two 50 kW Deep Blue electric engines and more. On the roof of the boat, which measures 64 m2, 24 adjustable solar panels are installed which follow the sun to generate the power necessary for its operation. The two 40 kWh Deep Blue lithium batteries aboard the Circular Explorer are charged ashore before the boat departs but, if it’s sunny, they return to port still fully charged; at a speed of 4 knots, the solar energy generated during the trip is almost identical to that consumed. In other words, the Circular Explorer is not only designed with a mission to clean, but it cleans itself.
The boat, designed in Germany at a shipyard in Lübeck, was named Circular Explorer and belongs to the environmental organization One Earth – One Ocean. Taking a closer look, one realizes that this is an exceptional type of catamaran. At the bow, between the two hulls, a conveyor belt collects any plastic objects, fragments of fishing nets or wooden planks from the water and takes them to the boat, where they are sorted by the crew into large containers. Any algae, crustaceans, mussels or other marine creatures are brought back into the water via a chute located at the stern.
Autonomous cleaning boats and floating recycling centers
Bonin founded One Earth – One Ocean leaving his job in information technology to raise public awareness of marine pollution, research the topic and develop concrete activities to address the problem of plastic waste thrown into the sea from ships or flowing out from the rivers of countries with non-functioning sewage systems.
This boat represents an important step forward in the project that began in 2008. At the time, Günther Bonin, an ambitious yachtsman and IT Manager, was sailing from Vancouver Island to San Diego when he saw the crew of a container ship throw tons of waste in the Pacific – a sight he would hardly forget. Back in Monaco, he began researching marine pollution and was shocked to find how little prevention had been done.
“We’ve got to clean up the water. Otherwise, we’re sawing through the life branches we’re sitting on,” says Bonin. The vision of the founder of the organization and his more than 40 employees is to create a global marine waste collection system. The dream is to see many thousands of waste collection vessels operating in all the major estuaries of the world and autonomous offshore vessels tracking waste by satellite, collecting it and carrying it away. Plastic waste has to be recycled at sea and pressed into huge bales on converted medium-sized container ships. In the future, these floating recycling centers may even be able to convert plastic into oil directly.
Plastic waste poses a significant threat to the marine ecosystem. Fish, birds and other marine creatures ingest the plastic, become ill and die. These mats of floating trash block sunlight from reaching the depths and inhibit the growth of plankton and algae. A few years ago, researchers from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation calculated that if pollution were to continue at this rate, by 2050 the plastic in the seas and oceans could weigh more than all the fish that live there.
Anyone who thinks these are just fantasies should take a look at the feasibility study drawn up by Kiel University scientists, who are currently working on a plan to build a similar vessel for recycling. Thirteen small garbage collection boats are already in operation around the world: they are cleaning up the Nile in Egypt, Guanabara Bay in Brazil and the Sangkat River in Cambodia. In this initial phase, One Earth – One Ocean focused on the rivers, estuaries and coasts of Africa, South America and Asia, the major contributors to ocean plastic pollution. However, most of these garbage collection boats are powered by diesel engines. Cleaning up the environment and polluting it at the same time isn’t ideal, which is why the organization has chosen to switch to solar energy.
Operating out of Manila five days a week
Günther Bonin ‘s team is expanding and now includes 20 more people, including seven local fishermen directly affected by the pollution who are interested in cleaning up. “Our approach is always to work with the local population right from the start,” he adds. In addition to the fishermen themselves, researchers and teachers also sensitize school and university students to the issues raised by their organisation. “Simply collecting litter won’t solve the problem,” Günther points out. “We’ve also got to work on ensuring new litter isn’t constantly ending up in the sea.”
After the launch in Hamburg and sea trials, the Circular Explorer was disassembled, placed in four containers and shipped to the Philippines. The vessel is currently operating five days a week to clean up the huge bay off the capital.
Gregor Papadopoulos of Torqeedo also hopes that Bonin’s vision of a global marine debris collection program will become a reality, not just for business reasons: it is a win-win situation that will make the world a better place.