The Ocean Cleanup's 'Interceptor' Aims to Clean 1,000 Rivers in 5 Years. Will It Work?
By Rachael Meyer, Basten Gokkon
It had rained all morning across Jakarta on the first Tuesday in February. The rivers in the Indonesian capital quickly filled up, carrying all kinds of debris toward the Java Sea. In one of the city's largest waterways, a Dutch-made device was trapping some of the trash to prevent it from washing out into the ocean.
The Interceptor 001 had been shipped to Jakarta in early 2019 by its inventor, the Rotterdam, Netherlands-based nonprofit organization The Ocean Cleanup (TOC). The prototype has been on a trial run since May 2019 near the mouth of the Cengkareng drain, which connects the city's notoriously garbage-laden Angke River to the Java Sea.
Jakarta's prototype is the first generation of a device that TOC aims to deploy in 1,000 of the world's most polluted rivers in just five years. The organization estimates these waterways are responsible for carrying 80 percent of ocean trash out to sea, with the remaining 20 percent of marine trash coming from around 30,000 other rivers.
There are two Interceptors currently installed, the second on the Klang River in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. According to Chris Worp, TOC's managing director, the group plans to deploy another Interceptor to the Rio Ozama in the Dominican Republic this month, and a fourth to southern Vietnam.
Donors from all over the world have invested millions of dollars in TOC to help the organization accomplish what it says are "ambitious" and "novel" solutions to the scourge of oceangoing trash. But the process has not been smooth. Mongabay visited the prototype in Jakarta in February and found issues with the device. Now, TOC is facing allegations that it copied the design of another successful river cleanup device patented more than a decade ago.
The river-cleaning project is part of The Ocean Cleanup's overall goal to reduce the amount of trash in the ocean. CEO Boyan Slat founded the organization in 2013 to create an open-ocean device that would remove all plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years. After many iterations and much media attention and criticism from scientists, a 160-meter (525-foot) test design collected and retained ocean plastic for the first time in October last year.
Over the course of the project, many scientists encouraged the organization to focus its efforts on rivers, where they said a cleanup device would be more effective. TOC took heed in 2015, when it began developing the Interceptor.
The Interceptor is powered by solar panels atop its white exterior shell. Each device's unique number is painted on one of its long sleek sides, facing to the banks of the river. At water level, a long waste barrier protrudes upstream, allowing the force of the current to push trash toward the device's mouth. There, a conveyor belt lifts debris out of the water and deposits it onto a platform inside the device that shuttles trash to one of six dumpsters. Once the containers are full, a local team takes them to shore to be emptied.
The latest Interceptor design can extract 50,000 kilograms (110,000 pounds) of plastic per day — double that under "optimal conditions" — and can hold 50 cubic meters (1,770 cubic feet) of garbage, according to TOC's website. The prototype in Jakarta has about one-fourth to one-fifth that capacity, and holds the trash in small crates instead of dumpsters. As a result, it needs to be maintained and emptied more frequently.
During the Interceptor's splashy unveiling event last October in Rotterdam, Slat called it the first "integrated system that you can bring anywhere in the world and install within days."
That's just not so, according to John Kellett, founder and president of Clearwater Mills LLC. In 2014, Kellett installed a device called the Waterwheel Powered Trash Interceptor in the Jones River in Baltimore, Maryland. This device, dubbed "Mr. Trash Wheel," uses booms to funnel trash to its mouth and a conveyor belt to lift trash out of the water. A key difference from TOC's Interceptor is that a water wheel powers the conveyor belt and solar-powered water pumps keep the wheel going when the current is weak. Due to its success, Baltimore now has three trash wheels, and Clearwater Mills is working in California, Texas and Panama to bring its design worldwide.
"They were aware of our efforts, experience and success when they developed their river device in secret and publicly dismissed it while borrowing heavily from our technology," Kellett told Mongabay of TOC.
In an email addressing these claims that Kellett shared with Mongabay, he informed TOC that Clearwater Mills had patented its device's design more than a decade ago. Kellett also told TOC that he thought their changes "make it more expensive, less effective and harder to maintain."
"We would love to see that the resources and efforts allocated to this global crisis are used effectively and that we are not duplicating efforts or working at cross purposes," he told Mongabay.
Worp acknowledged that the two devices share similar elements, but said TOC started its design from scratch. "It would be like saying one car is the same as all the others," he said. "We obviously know about the other systems that are out there, but we've really taken this from a different angle to find a scalable, high capacity, high efficiency solution."
According to Kellett, TOC has approached some of the organizations that Clearwater Mills is working with outside Baltimore to offer them an Interceptor instead. Worp denied this, and told Mongabay that his team doesn't see any other solutions as competitive.
Getting the Public Involved in Trash
For both organizations, finding a solution to river pollution goes beyond the cleanup devices.
"They're providing an opportunity to educate the public and inspire people to become part of the solution," Kellett said of the three devices his company deployed in Baltimore, which have spurred countless local environmental activities and educational programs.
According to Worp, several school groups have visited the Interceptor prototype in Jakarta. Community engagement is important to The Ocean Cleanup because it ultimately relies on local organizations to operate and maintain the devices.
Some scientists are skeptical about TOC's goal of targeting so many rivers in vastly different parts of the world. Andrew Gray, a hydrologist at the University of California, Riverside, studies small mountainous watersheds that expel a large amount of sediment to the ocean during strong storms. These storms can be destructive to any man-made device, he said.
"[These storms] that are probably discharging most of the plastics, are the kinds of events that you're not going to have a trash boom up because the hydrodynamics are far too aggressive," he said.
Gray also said the Interceptor would need to be incredibly versatile to accommodate a variety of river sizes.
Win Cowger, a graduate student in Gray's lab, pointed out the unpredictability of natural systems.
"Whenever you apply one solution — one device — to a broad range of ecosystems and a broad range of circumstances, it tends to have some implications that you might not have expected," he said.
Rainy Days in Jakarta
Early this year, Jakarta experienced one of its worst flooding disasters in recent years. Torrential rain, with a record-breaking intensity, showered Greater Jakarta for almost 16 hours through New Year's Eve and into New Year's Day. Most of the city's rivers flooded their surroundings. The Interceptor was found damaged after its waste barrier broke loose.
The water volume in the Cengkareng drain increased significantly, but never overflowed its banks, according to Muhammad Khusen, the leader of a waste-collecting worker group in the subdistrict where the Interceptor is located. He said it was the river's strong current that damaged the device's waste barrier, but TOC engineers were able to repair it the following day.
When Mongabay visited the device a few weeks later, in February, the rains were constant, albeit less intense than at the start of the year. While the Interceptor was undamaged, waste had piled up on the barrier and clogged up the device's opening.
Workers were using long poles to try to break up the clog, which included a lot of large organic material like branches, bamboo and banana tree trunks, and feed the debris bit by bit into the Interceptor.
A team of three workers has been assigned to collect the trash and maintain the device every day, Khusen said. But on the day of Mongabay's visit, he had to call in reinforcements. As many as 10 workers were on hand throughout the afternoon to help clean up the collected debris after an earlier attempt failed to get much done. When the workers went home at 3 p.m., only about 20 percent of the trapped debris had been taken out.
Workers and officials told Mongabay it was impractical to collect all of the trapped debris, largely because of the configuration of the device. For instance, Khusen said the waste-trapping barrier was so thin that his crew couldn't stand on it to push or pull the debris into the device's mouth. He said he preferred pontoon-style barriers they can stand on.
Another challenge is the 2-meter (6.6-foot) opening of the processor, which Khusen said is too small for large waste to freely pass. Sometimes, he said, he has to call in additional human resources to handle big items, like a sofa, spring bed, and even a dead cow that turned up.
"I thought this device was sophisticated," Khusen told Mongabay. "Apparently, there's still so much manual work needed. I'd say it still has a lot of shortfalls."
Lambas Sigalingging, head of operations at the North Jakarta water department, shared similar sentiments. Lambas said the device's lack of movement made it unsuitable for rivers in Jakarta that rarely have much current unless it rains.
"So, if we don't [actively] catch the debris, how is it going to clean itself? Meanwhile, the Interceptor is standing still," he told Mongabay in a phone interview. "This device would be effective, I think, if the current was strong."
Lambas said Jakarta's environment agency owns three waste-trapping barriers installed upstream from the Interceptor in the Cengkareng drain. His own team operates other devices in the city's rivers, including garbage-collecting boats made by the German company BERKY, excavators, and floating polyethylene barriers. Some of these needed less labor to operate than the Interceptor, he said.
Lambas said he has shared the challenges his team faces operating the Interceptor with The Ocean Cleanup team at meetings. But he said he hasn't seen much improvement to the device yet. According to Lambas, the device's trial run has been extended twice — first until December and then until this April.
"But I must stress this with you: I'm not the one to say whether the Interceptor is effective or efficient," Lambas said. "I can't answer that because there's the [TOC] research team that assesses its efficiency and effectiveness."
Worp said the Interceptor is effective in the Cengkareng drain and has removed a large amount of trash that the booms upstream could not. He also told Mongabay that TOC is talking with operators in Jakarta to assess what happened during the heavy rains earlier this year, and that his team does respond to feedback from workers. For example, he said, TOC replaced labor-intensive collection bags with crates last year.
He also reiterated that the device in Jakarta is a prototype, and the lessons learned from it have led to adjustments to the second generation of Interceptors, such as the ability to accommodate larger debris loads.
However, he admitted the Interceptor will not suit every river. "It is definitely not the solution for all, and we will be looking at further solutions as we tackle more and more rivers going forward," he said.
According to TOC's website, the group is now coordinating with governments around the world to begin deploying Interceptors on a large scale.
Rachael Meyer is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Her work focuses on technological solutions to environmental issues.
Basten Gokkon is a full-time staff writer with Mongabay based in Jakarta. His works have focused on issues pertaining to sustainable fisheries, marine conservation and indigenous people's rights.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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