The Fight Against Plastic Waste at Sea

As a lover of the sea, I can’t help but be concerned about the way we treat our most precious resource. The facts are there for all to see, below are some of the things that have struck me.

Since the 1950s, the production of waste and in particular plastic has increased exponentially: from a few million tonnes in 1950 to over 300 million tonnes in recent years

Currently, about 8 million tonnes of waste are dumped into the marine environment each year. This figure is expected to increase further over the coming decades, with serious implications for the marine environment and human health, unless improvements are made in waste management and its prevention.

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What can be done to limit this problem? Do we have solutions to prevent, monitor and cleanse our seas of marine litter? If so, which ones and how many? In fact, there are tens of thousands of solutions, but of these, only a hundred or so have been considered as innovative solutions, other than simple recycling or reduction of waste production, to confront the problem.

It is vital, not just for our species, that we tackle plastics first. It is the most common waste we find in our seas, but there are also other lesser studied materials, such as glass and metal, to name but a few. All these materials make up marine litter. Of these, plastic is the most studied, both at the macroscopic level as well as at the micro and nanoscopic levels. In the first case, it is plastic waste visible to the naked eye that causes direct damage to wildlife, endangering the lives of animals that accidentally ingest it. In the second case, they are small materials with dimensions similar to those of viruses (we speak of microplastics if they are smaller than 5 mm, and nanoplastics between 1 and 100 nanometres), which can be easily ingested by marine organisms, such as zooplankton and fish, cross biological barriers and enter the circulation and even the food chain, reaching humans with consequences that are still unknown today.

I have heard about innovative solutions, but what does that mean in practice? These are solutions, including technologies, that have been used for the first time to prevent, monitor and remove waste of various sizes from waters and coastal areas and have proven to be both suitable and effective. These technologies were selected using databases from projects funded by the European Commission (CORDIS, ESA, EMFF), the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the UNEP-sponsored Coordinating Body for the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA), scientific papers and crowdfunding platforms.

From the 20,000 results obtained from these databases, 180 were selected as possible solutions, either manual or automated, to prevent litter, including macro- and microplastics, from entering river mouths, to monitor their presence on beaches or in the open sea, and to remove marine litter from coastal areas, the sea surface and the seabed. These solutions include conveyor belts to collect and remove macro-waste floating on the sea surface; drones, GPS trackers and autonomous underwater vehicles to detect areas of widespread marine litter and monitor them over time; floating barriers to prevent the accumulation of litter; and nets, pumps and filters to sample microplastics.

Solutions were selected taking into account several aspects: for example, applicability to the prevention, monitoring and disposal of general or specific marine litter (e.g. plastic, glass) and/or particular size classes (e.g. macro, micro, nano litter); another selection criterion was methodological, technological or engineering innovation.

This would explain why, according to my understanding, out of the tens of thousands of solutions analysed, very few have become a technological reality or are on the market. Most of the solutions have only been demonstrated on a small scale, e.g. in the laboratory, reaching a low level of technological advancement (for specialists the so-called TRL – Technology Readiness Level). We are well aware that many solutions have the potential to prevent, monitor and clean up our seas of waste on a global scale, but that very often they do not go beyond the planning stage due to a lack of funding. The European Union seems to have already recognised this limitation and the new European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon Europe for the period 2021-2027 differentiates calls according to the level of technological advancement.

It therefore seems to me that a simple series of recommendations would be sufficient to make significant progress on these issues. These include, for example, new investments to improve existing solutions that have not yet become technological realities, but also synergy and collaboration between the various promoters of these solutions (scientists, NGOs, industries, public and private bodies) to improve existing technologies and develop new ones. It seems essential to strengthen waste management measures at national and international level, working on both the reduction of waste at source and its elimination from the environment, with a vision of a circular economy, for the sustainable development of our seas.

The future of maritime transport may lie in aviation

Ever since I was a child, I have been very interested in shipping. I remember that I couldn’t understand why all boats weren’t powered like my toy…with batteries.

Later I understood, and now, it gives me the opportunity to tell you about a sailing company. Although its name might not reflect it, Brittany Ferries is a French company.  It is particularly innovative and is banking on a two-stage electric future. It is this aspect that is of particular interest to me.

Firstly, two new ships will be joining the fleet, with a combined LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) and electric propulsion system. This “optimised hybrid” system should eventually enable a total reduction in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of 10 and 20% to be achieved, according to the company, a performance that is “set to progress as and when shore power sockets are installed in the ports allowing batteries to be recharged by shore power”.

If LNG is considered very encouraging, with the energy giant Shell having recently placed an order for 40 tankers, the hybrid version is much more promising. Indeed, it is conceivable that with the expected performance of new types of batteries (Sodium-Ion, Lithium-Sulphur, solid state batteries), new fully electric ships will emerge.

Brittany Ferries, however, is looking one step further. In the 1970s, the Soviet army developed a type of aircraft called the Ekranoplan, which was designed primarily for military use. It was designed to take advantage of a well-known aerodynamic effect: the ground effect.

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Without wishing to go into the physical and technical details here, which may bore my readers, it should simply be remembered that an aircraft flying very low on a flat surface (ideally water) uses much less energy. Man has taken the example of certain large birds that take advantage of this effect (swans, giant petrels, kori bustards, etc).

The next step for Brittany Ferries is therefore to bring the Soviet Ekranoplan up to date. This will be done by joining forces with the start-up Regent (Regional Electric Ground Effect Nautical Transport) based in Boston, USA.
Indeed, the French maritime operator aims to create a new mode of fast, sustainable and efficient maritime transport, the Seaglider.

A partnership agreement has been signed to participate in the design and development of Seagliders with a capacity of 50 to 150 passengers sailing between the UK and France by 2028. Regent expects the first commercial crossings to be on smaller electric boats from 2025.

A ferry… flying at 290km/h!

The Seaglider principle combines the manoeuvrability of ferries with the aerial efficiency of hovercraft and the speed of aircraft. These “gliders” on the sea, which could connect existing ports, should reach the impressive speed of 290 kilometres per hour.

After leaving the harbour, the Seaglider rises on its foils, and in the open sea it takes off on its air cushion, flying at a low altitude, which allows for comfortable sailing over the waves to the port of arrival, where it lands again on its foils, ensuring passenger comfort. In the open sea, it launches on a cushion of air to the port of arrival. Electric propeller motors on the wings provide sufficient thrust for take-off, and regulate the necessary airflow generating sufficient lift for take-off and flight.

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Seagliders would therefore be a very efficient mode of transport, capable of moving relatively large loads over long distances and at high speeds. The energy required would be provided exclusively by electric batteries recharged at the dockside.  Safety would be ensured by redundant propulsion systems, as well as by new generation radars that would automatically detect and bypass obstacles at sea.

I am excited about this type of technical innovation, especially since it’s associated with one of my great passions; the sea. I am looking forward to seeing a Seaglider in action!

Nuclear waste, a utilitarian thought

John Stuart Mill, in the 19th century, defined utilitarianism as a doctrine that makes the useful, that which serves life or happiness, the principle of all values in the field of knowledge as well as in that of action.

For most of us, and I am obviously no exception, energy is paramount in our professional and leisure activities. Of course, I personally favour electrical energy, but the question of its origin always remains. In Europe, just over 30% of energy comes from nuclear sources.

I have already mentioned this subject in a previous article explaining why nuclear fusion energy will replace fission energy in a few decades, without waste and without risk. In the meantime, we will have to continue to manage the waste resulting from fusion. But it is very surprising to me to see that, as much as humanity can show vanity and presumptuousness, sometimes it does not believe in itself or in its capacities.

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For example, the first thing that comes to mind and that we hear in the media is that it will take hundreds of thousands of years to significantly reduce the danger of nuclear waste. So we are putting future generations at risk. Really?

By being a little provocative, can we seriously think that radioactivity discovered only in 1895 by Henri Becquerel will remain in its current state of research concerning, in particular, waste? If in a little over a century we have been able to domesticate atomic fission and soon fusion, there is no reason why in future years a means will not be found to eliminate the danger of waste.  In the meantime, recycling channels are at work, and currently in France 96% of waste is recovered/reused, only 4% is so-called “ultimate” waste that needs to be stored.

Some countries, such as Finland, which obtains almost 32% of its energy from the atom, are devising intelligent strategies, even if mankind is unable to recycle 100% of its waste. Firstly, the location of a nuclear power plant is determined by where the waste is stored, i.e. in the immediate vicinity. Secondly, the safety of the burial of the waste must be envisaged for a very long period of time, even if future generations forget where it is located.

Accordingly, Finland has already begun digging a tomb designed to withstand the next ice age.  It lies exactly 437 m below the ground on Olkiluoto, an island in the Baltic Sea on the west coast of Finland. There, special guests will rest: radioactive waste that will remain so for hundreds of thousands of years. The temperature is a constant 11 degrees Celsius.

The underground labyrinth of 200 tunnels will eventually be almost 70 km long. Up to 3,250 spaces will be created where the so-called “capsules” will be stored. These will contain the used nuclear fuel. Onkalo (the translation of Finnish means burrow), the name of this site, is a veritable sarcophagus.

Fourfold protection is in place because the used fuel packages, which contain uranium and other radioactive elements such as plutonium, will be inserted into a steel cylinder, which is itself covered by a 5 cm thick copper cylinder to prevent corrosion.

The minimum duration of this protection is 100,000 years, making it the longest-lasting man-made object. The capsules will then be buried in holes at regular intervals in the Onkalo tunnels. They will be surrounded by blocks of bentonite, a type of clay found underground. Once the capsules have been placed, the tunnels themselves will be gradually filled with clay. Above this, 400 m of extremely stable granitic rock, which has not moved for two billion years.

For the time being, therefore, there is no ideal solution while waiting for the “energy of the stars”, i.e. fusion. Thus, the usefulness (no pun intended) of remembering the teaching of John Stuart Mill. I cannot resist adding a thought from Marie Curie:

“In life nothing is to be feared, everything is to be understood.”