Fighting plastic pollution, with bubbles

Every year, 8 billion kilos of plastic ends up in the ocean, and almost all of it comes from our rivers. A Dutch start-up has invented a solution that claims to catch the trash before it gets that far. And it’s made of bubbles.

To help you visualise the enormity of 8 billion kilos, imagine a garbage truck continually dumping its contents into the sea, every single minute. That’s a huge amount of plastic that’s entering our ecosystem, causing extreme damage to the marine environment. What’s more, it’s predicted that the total volume could triple by 2050.

Enter the Great Bubble Barrier. A tube installed the entire width of the riverbed pushes a stream of bubbles upwards, forming a protective shield that prevents plastic pollution from passing through, pushing it aside to a catchment zone. It may sound crazy, but it works! And despite collecting at least 86% of the debris that would otherwise have eventually reached the sea, the barrier poses no problem whatsoever to passing boats or wildlife.

The concept was launched thanks to a group of concerned citizens collectively named ‘The Coast Busters’ in the Dutch seaside town of Katwijk aan Zee in 2018. They noticed that much of the plastic that was washing up on the shoreline seemed to be coming from the Oude Rijn (a branch of the Rhine) which flows through the city. After gaining support from local government and the waterboard authority, the group were able to get funding to develop the first community-led ‘bubble barrier’ in the world.

Shortly after, a similar system was installed in the canals of Amsterdam, and soon we’ll see a bubble barrier in place in the Douro River in Portugal; a key entry point for plastic pollution to the Atlantic. Ultimately, The Great Bubble Barrier team plans to expand further in the coming years, particularly into Asia, whose rivers are the source of an estimated 81% of all ocean plastics (due in no small part to Asia being both the manufacturer for the world, and – until very recently – a destination for the West’s landfill waste).

As the company expands, we can be reminded that anything is possible when citizens, local and regional governments work together, and that great positive change can happen thanks to the determination of a small number of individuals.

Subscribe to Open
Get the latest in Design, Sustainability and Swissness from Prodir.