12 Systems for River Cleanup

We have all heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of garbage and plastic in the Pacific Ocean. Boyan Slat and others are working to collect this ocean plastic with mixed results. But more urgent, is the river cleanup of the ocean-bound plastic.

80% of ocean plastic comes from 1,000 main rivers of the world. A recent study estimates that more than a quarter of all that waste is pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight of them in Asia.

Many of these Asian countries are putting single-use plastic bans in place, and they are putting restrictions on importing plastic to recycle. As the world becomes more aware of the issue, pressure is put on these countries to clean up their act and their rivers.

It does help that more people and companies are developing methods and options that are economical and scalable to different needs. Here are some of the interesting companies using robots, boats, bubbles, and trash cans for river cleanup before the water enters the ocean.

“Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.”

Gaylord Nelson – 1970

4Ocean Harbor Skimmer – Florida, USA

Using two pumps and a stainless steel filter, it pulls in the plastic and floating debris. Inside, the water moves very slowly and does not harm any fish that might swim into it.

4Ocean says it will be emptied by one of the harbor staffers on a regular basis. When the worker cleans the Skimmer, they return organic debris and any fish found in the screen, back into the ocean. The plastic that is collected will be sent to be recycled.

4Ocean floating plastic collector

The Harbor skimmer is rated to be able to collect and lift out 1,200lbs of waste, but normally the plastic waste is pretty lightweight. Right now there are only four of these units in Florida, but they have plans for many more.

This is the first version of this ocean-bound plastic trap, and as they get more hours and experience, they will make improvements as necessary. 4ocean is a Certified B Corp company, meaning they have been scrutinized by a third-party nonprofit that verifies the sustainability and social impact that the company makes, read more about it here.

Mr Trash Wheel – Baltimore, Maryland

Mr. Trash Wheel is an anthropomorphic trash interceptor with googly eyes and his own Twitter account. Built and put in place by Clearwater Mills and the Waterfront Partnership, he has been gobbling up trash and floating plastic out of the Jones Fall River in Baltimore since 2014.

In 2016 he was joined by the female-gendered Professor Trash Wheel, and with Captain Trash Wheel launched in 2018 in Brooklyn. The fleet of river cleanup vessels has collected a total of 907 tons of rubbish.

Mr Trash Wheel river cleanup barge

The vessels are powered by waterwheels and the river’s current, with solar panels for backup on slower days. Debris is collected by floating barriers and the wheels power a conveyor belt that transfers the rubbish out of the water and into a bin.

On April 20, 2015, after the first significant rain storm of the season, Mr. Trash Wheel removed 19 tons of garbage from Baltimore’s waterfront on that one day. The previous record for debris removal occurred on May 16, 2014, when the machine removed 11 tons of refuse on that day. At the end of the third quarter in 2016, (which occurred on September 30, 2016), it was noted that Mr. Trash Wheel had collected over 1,000,000 pounds (500 short tons) of trash since its inception.

Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches, or its romance.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Seabin Project – Sydney, Australia

Started in Australia by two surfers and sailors, they saw the issue of plastic in the ocean firsthand and decided to do something about it. They came up with a plan to build a giant pool skimmer, that would collect trash and plastic that gathers in harbors and marinas, before it reaches the ocean.

Using recycled plastic, stainless steel and a water pump, they built the first Seabin. It proved to collect a significant amount of plastic and in 2017, Wärtsilä, a leader in marine and sustainable technolgy partnered with Seabin. Since then, Wärtsilä has donated 40 Seabins in various locations globally.

Seabin floating plastic collector

Now there are more than 860 Seabins in total worldwide and together, they can capture 7,965 lbs of floating plastic and debris every day. The filter removes plastic particles down to 2mm, and also soaks up and removes gas and oil from the water.

Like all projects, it is a work in progress. While the bin itself is 100 percent recyclable, the Seabin team is still working to develop a recycled material catch-bag and they have done testing using solar panels as a zero-carbon power option. The Seabin Project knows its product isn’t perfect, and they are always looking for ways to improve it, but it is a great step in the right direction. Read more about the Seabin here.

Barrier of Garbage – Panama

Marea Verde is a non-profit organization formed in 2017 that focuses on creating awareness and taking action on mitigating pollution from solid waste in the rivers and coasts of Panama. Their first project consists of the installation of our “B.o.B” (Barrier of Garbage, Barrera o Basura in Spanish) on the Matías Hernández River. B.o.B is a floating barrier that traps the trash that this riverbed brings, preventing it from reaching the coast and the mangrove swamp.

The Matías Hernández River is one of the seven rivers in Panama City that discharge 102,299 tons of land-generated marine debris annually into Panama Bay. This is a river cleanup system that has been tested in other countries and so far has been effective in Panama. It is expected that it can be replicated in other rivers that present this same problem.

Barrier of Garbage river cleanup system in panama

​B.o.B received its first heavy rain on April 6, 2019, which brought tons of garbage that were collected in 470 jumbo bags. Among what was found that day, were 8 fridges. As of December 2019, more than 10,000 garbage bags have been collected, which is equivalent to more than 70 tons of trash. Thus, more than 50 refrigerators, piles of tires, trolleys, suitcases, and 2 tubes of 3 meters of length, regularly used for aqueduct and sewer systems have also been collected.

Because of the amount of trash, transferring the debris directly onto shore at the capture site worked well for this location. But the newer adapted design incorporates a transverse conveyor system, continuously removing the debris to the riverbank. A water wheel provides mechanical power for the conveyor from the river current and solar-powered pumps.

RanMarine – Waste Shark -Netherlands

A marine drone, called the WasteShark is busy cleaning up plastic waste off the coast of Devon in the United Kingdom, according to the Independent. Guided by LIDAR and 4G, the shark is the apex predator of trash and plastic in the river cleanup project.

At over 5 feet long, and almost 4 feet wide, it’s small enough to get in tight areas but big enough to gather up to 132 pounds of plastic waste at a time. If it’s deployed five days a week, it can remove 15.6 tons of plastic waste from a body of water per year, according to the machine’s creator, the Dutch technology company RanMarine.

WasteShark river cleanup boat

The WasteShark has been deployed in five countries already and the first iteration in the UK was spearheaded by the environmental nonprofits World Wildlife Fund and Sky Ocean Rescue. It can run for up to 10 hours on a charge and has an automated lift to take it out and charge it when needed.

The two groups have long advocated against plastic waste in marine ecosystems and see the WhaleShark as a useful tool in preventing animals from being injured and otherwise harmed by floating plastic. The only thing I would add to this is a shark fin for style!

Plastic. It infiltrates everything. It gets into every single pore of productive life. I mean there won’t be anything that isn’t made of plastic before long. They’ll be paving the roads with plastic before they’re done. Our bodies, our skeletons, will be replaced with plastic.”  

Norman Mailer, 1983

Plastic Whale – Amsterdam, Netherlands

Based in The Netherlands, Marius Smit came home from the Caribbean, and having seen the ”plastic soup” in many places, he decided to take on the problem at home. He didn’t have experience in this venture, but he put the idea forward and people came out of the woodwork to help him.

With help from professionals in many different fields, they built the first boat from recycled plastic and powered it with an electric motor and battery setup from Combi Outboards. Read more about electric outboards here. Plastic Whale set up the first annual “Old Fashioned Plastic Fishing” event in Sept 2011 and the turnout was far above what he had hoped for. 450 people and 33 boats showed up to pick plastic and floating trash from the canals in Amsterdam.

plastic whale canal and river cleanup boat

Now Plastic Whale has 11 recycled plastic boats and they are cleaning up Rotterdam now too. They sell excursions for business parties, tourists, and locals alike, to go plastic fishing. The idea is to stop talking and do something, but they do focus on the education of everyone who goes fishing with them.

The Covid-19 has hit Plastic Whale hard and they have had to cancel many projects. Marius says there is a little less plastic now that the economy isn’t booming, but not being able to have others go fishing with him is really making it hard for him to keep up on the river cleanup. Plastic Whale is also a Certified B Corp company, meaning they have been scrutinized by a third-party nonprofit that verifies the sustainability and social impact that the company makes, read more about it here.

The Great Bubble Barrier – Amsterdam

The Plastic Whale isn’t the only Dutch ocean-bound plastic solution. The Great Bubble Barrier is a system installed in an Amsterdam canal in November 2019 which cleans the waterway using just bubbles. The idea, like many of these, originated from three friends who shared a passion for sailing and became concerned about the amount of plastic waste they saw in the water.

The inspiration came one day when Anne Marieke Eveleens, Francis Zoet, and Saskia Studer were talking over drinks. “One day they were drinking a beer in a bar,” says Sandy Reitsma of Great Bubble Barrier, “and discussing the problem of plastics in the ocean. One of them was looking at the bubbles in the beer and that was the start of the idea.”

The Great Bubble Barrier river cleanup system in Amsterdam

The three women took their idea to the public and received funding from the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge award and other prizes. They met a German naval architect and ocean engineer, Philip Ehrhorn, who had come up with a similar idea when watching bubbles in a water treatment plant bring waste plastics to the surface. The two projects come together and the Great Bubble Barrier was created.

This, unlike many of the others that collect just from the surface, has the advantage of collecting waste from the whole depth of the river. Initial tests in the river showed the device collected 82-86 percent of the test material. Once proven, the technology was installed in Amsterdam’s Westerdock canal in November, where it is powered by electricity from the grid.

The bubbles bring the plastic to the surface and the angle of the bubbling pipe guides the plastic to one side where it is collected. All waste collected from the canal is stored for analysis by collaborating organization Plastic Soup Foundation, but the results are not yet available.

Water Witch – Liverpool, United Kingdom

Based in the United Kingdom, Water Witch has been in business for over 50 years building skimmers barges, and dredges. Their Versi Cat Skimmer is like a pontoon boat with a big basket between the pontoons for river cleanup, focused on plastic and trash. The aluminum catamaran is powered by an electric Torqeedo outboard for considerably lower maintenance and running costs as well as zero-emissions operation. Learn more about the basics of electric outboards here.

The basket can be lifted out of the water with the onboard winch for less drag and better transit speed. Rated to collect 2,000lbs of debris, the Versi Cat is fitted with roller wheels on the front and rub strips on the sides so getting into tight spots isn’t a scraping, grinding affair.

water witch floating plastic river cleanup

Over 200 of Waterwitch’s debris collection and trash retrieval workboats operate around the world, combating the growing tide of plastics in our seas including Hong Kong, New York, Cape Town, Kuwait, and London.

Their range of workboats has been developed to offer users a versatile, multi-purpose craft or pontoon boat that can perform a wide range of duties in addition to efficient aquatic trash and debris removal.

Aquarius Systems – Trash Hunters – USA

This American company builds boats to clean up floating debris from harbors, rivers, and other waterways plagued with this unsightly navigational hazard, rescuing waterways and making them safe for public use and consumption. With their twin catamaran hulls, Trash Hunters easily retrieve a wide variety of manmade and organic floating debris including plastic, litter, old tires, leaves, timber, branches, and logs.

Trash Hunter river and canal cleanup boat by Aquarious Systems

The Trash Hunter has also proven instrumental in small-scale oil recovery operations. As unwanted debris is collected, it is conveyed on board and stored in the generous storage hold area. Complete instrumentation and hydrostatic hydraulics enable a single operator to manage all functions of the debris skimmer without coming into direct contact with the refuse. The adjustable collection arms and water jets enable the operator to clean out even tight corners.

The Trash Hunters are available in a variety of sizes to tackle every application. Considerations such as water salinity are a major factor in deciding which configuration will best suit your needs for river cleanup.

This video seems a little dated, but there is a lot of good info in it.

“The ultimate resource is people—especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty—who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefits, and so inevitably they will benefit the rest of us as well.”  

Julian Simon, The State of Humanity

Ikea – London, United Kingdom

Ikea has designed a remote-controlled boat, called the Good Ship IKEA, that clears trash and plastic from the river. It may look cute as it’s modeled after the SMÅKRYP bath toy, but it’s very much functional.

Ikea floating plastic river cleanup boat

They use environmental cleanup boat technology that can collect up to 44lbs of debris at a time, so a small fleet could keep a river relatively pristine. Like some drones, the remote control shows a first-person view thanks to an onboard camera. In London alone, 300 tonnes of rubbish are cleared from the Thames every year.

The two boats are serving at Deptford Creek in southeast London through February 19th, and as part of an educational initiative, IKEA is giving people a chance to steer the boats. Later in February, the store chain plans to donate the boats to the sustainability charity Hubbub for more river cleanup.

Ikea floating plastic river cleanup boat with controller

While the activity is short, it does help to raise awareness about the growing issue of ocean-bound plastic and trash. In partnership with Creekside Education Trust and Hubbub, Ikea is taking on the important issue of plastic pollution with a playful activity and encouraging children and families to join them in cleaning up the local area.

Ikea floating plastic river cleanup boat

The Ocean Cleanup Interceptor – Malaysia

The Ocean Cleanup’s project of collecting ocean plastic is still going ahead, with some difficulties, but now the organization has also turned its attention to river cleanup. So far, they have had much greater success with the river projects.

“Combining our ocean cleanup technology with the Interceptor, the solutions now exist to address both sides of the equation,” said Slat, the organisation’s founder.

Ocean Cleanup Interceptor river cleanup barge

The Interceptor uses a floating barrier angled across a river to collect plastic. Floating plastic and trash is funneled towards the autonomous solar-powered processing plant that resembles a barge. The trash is passed up a conveyor belt and deposited into bins, which signal to the system when they are full so that a boat can come and pick them up for recycling.

It is a fairly simple system that has shown great results. At the full performance, it is able to remove over 100,000lbs of debris each day. Currently, there are Interceptors operating in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, with more planned for the Dominican Republic and the USA.

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” 

Charles Mackay, Scottish journalist, 1841

Floating Boom – Athens, Greece

As one of the five Cleaning Litter by Developing and Applying Innovative Methods in European Seas (CLAIM) projects run by the EU, a floating boom has been installed at the mouth of the Kifissos River in Athens, Greece.

The floating boom is called the Tactical Recovery System Hellas, or TRASH, and was manufactured by New Naval.

Floating Boom river cleanup system

Using technology New Naval developed for responding to oil spills, the mesh barriers collect river plastic and channels it towards a floating cage. This is used to lift the plastic up to the level of the harbor wall so it can be removed. To me, this one looks like it could be improved on as the emptying process seems a little hokey. Nevertheless, they are making a difference with this river cleanup project.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

 Mahatma Gandhi

​River Cleaning System – Italy

In 2019, in an effort to address the rising oil and plastic waste issues, the company has developed an innovative, unique, and efficient system called River Cleaning, that prevents plastic waste and oil pollutants floating on the surface of watercourses from entering the sea, while also allowing navigability and having no detrimental effect whatsoever on flora and fauna.

The solution consists of a series of round floating devices, positioned diagonally on the course of the river. They are anchored with flexible lines, to a rail at the bottom of the river. As they spin from the current they can intercept plastic waste and move the trash to the riverbank, into a special storage area. Due to the way they are anchored, they can adjust for changes in water levels and can do not hinder boat traffic,

The system has a low environmental impact solution, does not require any power source other than the kinetic energy of the moving water, and does not produce any kind of waste. 

Furthermore, technology has recently been further developed with a plugin-integration: an absorption system for the oil pollutants floating on the surface of the rivers.

Each of the devices is provided with GPS locators so if there is a failure and one of them detaches, it would be possible to easily find and retrieve it.

River Cleaning Plastic & Oil a unique solution, as it is completely scalable and environment-friendly.

There are many other groups and organizations doing great work too, shoot me a message if there is one you are a part of or know of that is making a difference.

If you enjoyed this as much as I did researching and putting this together, I bet you have a friend that would like to read it too. Thanks for your time!

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