Waste collection at sea

We're all in the same boat when it comes down to the waste in the oceans. Is there any chance left to change course?

I t's an invention that may save our oceans. Its official name is a little long winded: the first certified waste collection ship. The ship has been formally christened "Seekuh." The Seekuh is a special catamaran that can extract plastic waste from the sea, weighs six tons, measures 12 meters in length and 10 meters in width and was co-financed by Deutsche Telekom.

The background behind this invention is very serious, global issue. The seas contain more than 140 million tons of plastic, and this number is growing by at least another 8 million tons each year. PET bottles, packaging, canisters – carelessly thrown away. It is inconceivable that some parts of the oceans already contain six times as much plastic as natural plankton. And the prognosis is alarming: Unless something changes, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish in 30 years. It is hard to say what this will mean for the global environment.

The special catamaran is a promising step towards dealing with this problem. Günther Bonin, inventor of the ship, designed it so that it can be disassembled and brought to any place in the world with a freight container – for example, to the North Pacific. A 300-million ton plastic vortex covering an area the size of Central Europe is floating between Hawaii and America's west coast. The consequences for marine animals are lethal: They often get caught up in the plastic or suffocate from it, thinking it is food. The gigantic amounts of waste in the ocean pose a threat to us as well. Plastic waste has a lifetime of up to 450 years and finally ends up in our own meals as microplastics (minute particles) and toxic plastic substances in fish.

A plastic vortex covering an area the size of Central Europe is floating between Hawaii and America's west coast

The purpose of the Seekuh is to contribute to a solution for this global issue as a prototype. The catamaran lets down a net structure into the water between its two hulls, which it uses to extract plastic waste from the sea down to two meters below the surface. But there is more: The ship also makes it possible to extract oil from plastic waste. 800 liters of petroleum can be made from one ton of plastic. An average vehicle can easily drive 10,000 kilometers on that amount. The Seekuh sails at “walking speed” so that no animals get caught in its nets. In areas with high volumes of waste in the water, the Seekuh can collect 2 to 3 tons several times a day. It can also be used on beaches, where piles of plastic can directly be pushed up on the coast, similar to an excavator. With the Seekuh project, Deutsche Telekom has invested in research on which the survival of the oceans and ultimately of humankind depends. The goal is that a deep-sea version of the ship will soon be built that can independently collect plastic waste anywhere in the ocean, powered by wind and solar power.

But all of us can contribute to making the necessity of waste collection in the sea a thing of the past; by preventing waste, using paper and fabric rather than plastic bags, using refillable packaging and, if no alternative to plastic is available, properly disposing of plastic.