A 2021 global study on marine plastics by the World Bank Group shows that there are 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic that end up in our oceans each year. But did you know the Philippines is actually the third largest contributor of plastic waste in the world with an estimated 0.75 million metric tons of plastic ending up in our waters annually?
Thus, it is not a coincidence that the Philippines—Manila Bay in particular—was picked to be the first stop of the Circular Explorer, a first of its kind solar-powered catamaran designed to collect up to four tons of plastic waste every day.
The marine preservation project is a joint initiative of Holcim Group, a building material company that advocates circular economy (or the sustainable production and consumption of resources), and One Earth One Ocean (OEOO), an international NGO dedicated to reducing marine pollution.
How it works
The Circular Explorer was built in a shipyard in Lübeck, Germany. It’s 12 meters long and eight meters wide and is made of aluminum, says OEOO project manager Daniel Scheler. The vessel has a modular design, a necessary feature so it can be shipped to and reassembled in different parts of the world. Since it’s a small catamaran, it is designed for bay waters only.
The waste collecting vessel has two guard rails that form a V shape at its front. Once the ship slowly moves forward, the marine litter gets pushed into these rails and onto a conveyor belt which brings the litter onto a sorting table.
At the sorting table, three people are on standby to segregate recyclable and non-recyclable waste. Plants and fishes caught by the conveyor belt are brought back to the water. The litter is then packed and brought to their offloading station, which at the moment is located at the Manila harbor.
Zoe Sibala, Holcim Philippines’ Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, says their group prioritizes recycling and upcycling in the management of marine litter. They are also developing partnerships with different business enterprises that could make use of or incorporate plastics in their products.
The end-of-life plastics (plastics that are no longer recyclable), on the other hand, are pre-processed by Holcim Philippines’ waste management arm, Geocycle, so it can be used as fuel alternative in the production of cement which is Holcim’s main product.
The Circular Explorer is run by solar power. “It’s 100% electric. So meaning, the vessel is being propelled by electricity. It has two electric motors and it has two electric car batteries on board. It is being charged by a 60-quare meter solar roof,” explains Scheler.
It’s not a cheap vessel. Since it is a prototype, a first of its kind, and the cost of raw materials has increased over the last several months, close to a million US dollars was spent in building it. But it needed to be done. “The cost of saving the environment will be higher if we don’t start acting now,” says Scheler. “What will be the cost in 10 years, when it is too late, when Manila Bay really is dead and we need to resurrect the entire environment below and above the waterline?”
The challenge ahead
Cleaning up Manila Bay is a gargantuan task, and one boat will not be enough to tackle this problem in three years, which is the timeline of the Holcim project in the Philippines. But Scheler says that apart from being a cleaning vessel, the Circular Explorer is “an ambassador to show what we can do.”
Sibala adds that they are using the vessel as a platform for education. “We need to increase people’s awareness and start our children young, so we are partnering with educational institutions,” she says. He says the group is likewise working with the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines to advance research, conduct baseline on marine pollution, to help develop policies regarding the prevention and management of plastic use in the Philippines.
Scheler says they are currently working on the needed permits to start the operation of the catamaran in Manila Bay. The project, he says, has been receiving an overwhelmingly positive feedback from local government units, and authorities like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Coast Guard.
Holcim and OEOO are enjoining everyone to participate in their advocacy. “We don't want to get to the point when we have to resurrect Manila Bay. We have to start reducing the plastic waste that we produce, or reuse and recycle our litter before they get to our ocean,” stresses Sibala.