EU eyes high-tech cleanup for plastic pollution in rivers

The EU is exploring high-tech solutions to plastic pollution but some experts are skeptical. They say there are simpler and more effective ways to keep our waters plastic-free and they are available now.

In an alley in downtown Vienna, a cold November wind blows fluffy white pellets across the pavement, swirling into drifts near the gutter at the curb. But it's too early for snow. What's piling up is plastic — polystyrene insulation foam, to be exact.

Nature and Environment | 30.11.2017

When rain washes the bits into the sewers, some of it ends up in the River Danube, which dumps 4.2 tons of plastic into the Black Sea every day. 

About 13 million tons of plastic pollution per year are choking the world's oceans. Sea turtles die because they mistake floating bags for jellyfish, crabs ingest microplastic particles through their gills, and plastic fibers are turning up in tap water around the world.

There's an urgent need to clean up plastic pollution — and the European Union wants to test new high-tech solutions under its Horizon 2020 project. 

Nature and Environment | 01.03.2018
Österreich Wien Lindengasse

When rain washes bits of plastic into the sewer, some ends up in rivers and eventually the ocean

Read: Is marine plastic pollution a threat to human health?

Plasma ovens and nanocoatings

One of the EU's pilot schemes involves coating plastics with light-activated nanoparticles that may be able to degrade common microplastic pollution.

Project engineers also want to pluck visible pieces out of the water at river mouths using robotic arms guided by optical scanners. And garbage-scouring barges could be powered by the plastic they collect after it's turned into synthetic gas by experimental super-hot plasma ovens.

Read: Plastic fibers pervasive in tap water worldwide, new study shows

At the same time, scientists intend to put instruments for measuring plastic pollution on ships that travel busy commercial routes. If they can figure out how the material moves and where it piles up, that data will be useful for developing a long-term strategy for people to clean up the mess they've made.

Frauen sammeln Plastikmüll ein

Beach clean-ups are one way to tackle plastic waste but it would be better not to produce so much in the first place, say experts

The solutions being considered show how hard it is to clear such waste once it's in the environment. Most experts say the only long-term solution is keeping it out of rivers and oceans to begin with. But not everyone agrees that such high-tech initiatives are the solution.

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"For me, it seems like the wrong message," hydrogeologist Christian Schmidt from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) told DW. "It's saying: You can keep polluting the rivers, someone else will take it out for you downstream, so you don't have to care."  

"Rivers have always been used as trash cans. You dump stuff, and it magically flows away, out of sight," Schmidt added. "People have to be aware that it goes somewhere; that it ends up in the ocean,"

Out of sight, out of mind

In a recent study, Schmidt calculated that just 10 of the world's rivers (eight in Asia and two in Africa) may contribute about 90 percent of all the plastic pollution that enters the oceans each year. 

Read: Almost all plastic in the ocean comes from just 10 rivers

The targeted use of river-cleaning technology could help in the short term in those places, Schmidt acknowledged — but the real answer would be to reduce plastic use and ensure good fundamental waste management at every step, including a functioning collection and recycling system, as well as adequate filtration at water treatment plants.

Infografik Weltweite Plastikproduktion von 1950 bis 2015 ENG

The amount of plastic being produced as exploded since 1950

"I think this can be done. After all, it's standard in industrialized countries," Schmidt said. Still, even advanced wastewater treatment plants like those in highly developed European countries don't capture all the microplastic.

The microplastic problem also illustrates the limitations of a "clean it up later" approach. Yes, it would be possible to install even-better filtration systems; but Schmidt warns of potential unwanted consequences.

Along with the microplastic, they would filter out organic compounds that are required to replenish ecosystems downstream.

Read: Six data visualizations that explain the plastic problem

Ocean love

For Sabine Pahl, a behavioral scientist at Plymouth University, it's about human choices — every step of the way, from the inception of a new product to the consumer who buys a "new and improved" facial scrub.

"Someone, at some stage, said it would be a good idea to put plastic beads in your shower gel. I would suggest that was not really thought through," Pahl told DW, urging scientists from different fields to work together to address the cause of the problem.

Deutschland Mikroplastik

Plastic microbeads are now turning up in products such as peeling face and shower gels. These tiny bits of plastic can end up in the food chain

Along with technological innovations, a successful plan to fight plastic pollution should include an understanding of how people perceive their relationship to the environment, added Pahl.

"People obviously love the coast, so they would probably be willing to preserve it and the ocean," she said.

The real challenge lies in making the connection between our activities and impacts to the ocean. The builder in Vienna who is trying to protect the environment by using the thickest insulation needs to understand that the escaped waste plastic may be polluting the beach where he vacations in the summer.

Read: Plastic is junk food for coral

Specifically, that can mean education and discussions in schools and families — but can also extend to product labeling and even smartphone apps that consumers can use to scan products for plastic microbeads.

And policy-makers, along with industry and elected officials, would also need to be included. 

"We all need to work together," Pahl said."There's no point only having technical solutions. We need to address it from all angles."

Nature and Environment

1: Yangtze River

The Yangtze is Asia's longest river and the third-longest river in the world. It also tops the list of river systems through which the most plastic waste flows into the oceans, according to a recent study. The Yangtze flows into the East China Sea near Shanghai and is crucial to China's economy and ecology. The river basin is home to 480 million people — one-third of the country's population.

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2. Indus River

The Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research found 90 percent of plastic flowing into oceans can be traced to 10 rivers. The Indus ranks second on the list. One of Asia's largest rivers, it flows through parts of India and Pakistan into the Arabian Sea, supporting millions of people. While much plastic enters rivers because of a lack of waste infrastructure, sewage systems contribute too.

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3. Yellow River

Plastic can enter the food chain as fish and other marine and freshwater animals ingest it. The Yellow River, said to be the cradle of Chinese civilization, is third on the plastic-waste list but that's not the only environmental problem with which it contends. Pollution has rendered much of the river's water undrinkable. Around 30 percent of its fish species are believed to have disappeared too.

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4. Hai River

Another of China's rivers, the Hai, comes in at number 4. It connects two of China's most populous metropolitan areas, Tianjin and Beijing, before flowing into one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, the Bohai Sea. The 10 river systems share traits, says the study. One is that they are located in densely populated areas with a lack of waste infrastructure and little awareness of recycling.

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5. Nile River

Generally thought to be the world's longest river, the Nile flows through 11 countries before entering the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt. Some 360 million people live in the river basin where its waters support agriculture — the region's main economic activity. Irrigation and evaporation mean the river doesn't even reach the sea in dry periods. Still, it comes in at number five in the ranking.

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6. The Ganges

The Ganges is central to Indian spiritual life and provides water to more than half a billion people. Sewage, agricultural and industrial waste have made it one of the world's most polluted rivers, as have the multitudes of plastic that end up in it. Cleaning up the waste — as students are doing in this picture — is important, but experts say we must produce less and stop pollution at the source.

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7. Pearl River

Here, workers clear floating waste from China's notoriously dirty Pearl River, which enters the South China Sea between Hong Kong and Macau. Sewage and industrial waste flow into the river delta, keeping apace with the region's incredible rate of urban expansion. Since the late 1970s, the delta has transformed from a mainly agricultural and rural region to one of the world's largest urban areas.

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8. Amur/Heilong River

It's not until they hit urban and industrial areas that rivers feel the worst effects of pollution. Still, according to recent studies, plastic debris is even being found in remote and "pristine" locations. The Amur River rises in the hills of northeastern China and forms much of the border between China's Heilongjiang province and Russia's Siberia before it snakes out to the Sea of Okhotsk.

Nature and Environment

9. Niger River

The Niger is West Africa's main river, supporting over 100 million people and one of the planet's most lush ecosystems. It flows through five countries before entering the Atlantic Ocean from Nigeria. Plastic pollution aside, extensive dam construction is affecting water availability — and frequent oil spills in the Niger Delta have caused widespread water contamination.

Nature and Environment

10. Mekong River

Dams are having major ecological and social impacts on the Mekong too. Around 20 million people live in the Mekong Delta. Many are dependent on fishing and agriculture for survival. The river flows through six countries in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam and Laos, and is tenth on the list of river systems that carry most of the 8 million tons of plastic that are dumped into the seas each year.

 

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