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A way to wash the water clean

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Ludovic Grosjean wants to get the plastic out of our oceans — starting with our rivers


From his home in southeastern Australia, Ludovic Grosjean is sounding the alarm. “There are 8.8 million tons of plastic dumped into our oceans every year,” he says. “By 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans if we do not reverse the situation. Removal is critical, but the solutions start elsewhere.”

That’s because, as a 2017 study revealed, a substantial portion of the plastic that ends up in oceans travels there via rivers — up to 3 million tons annually. Shut down that plastic highway and you’ve made a significant contribution to cleaning up the oceans.

That’s where Grosjean, 31, proves himself more than a mere alarmist. An oceanographer with multiple advanced degrees, he was named one of Australia’s most innovative engineers in 2019. In November 2018, when Rotary Day at the United Nations was held in Nairobi, Kenya — the headquarters of UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme — Rotary honored Grosjean, a member of the Rotaract Club of Melbourne City, as one of six young innovators.

But for Grosjean, the awards are secondary. More interested in solutions than salutations, he’s focused on eliminating the massive accumulation of plastics and other pollutants that threaten the oceans. Which brings us back to the world’s rivers, or, more specifically, to the Niger and Nile in Africa, and the Amur, Ganges, Hai, Indus, Mekong, Pearl, Yangtze, and Yellow in Asia. According to that 2017 study, those 10 rivers account for about 90 percent of the tons of plastic trash that rivers carry into the oceans. “If we can detect and collect that plastic while it’s still drifting, we could make a huge difference,” Grosjean says.

The young innovator thinks he knows how that can be accomplished, but he also understands he can’t do it on his own. To bring his ideas to fruition, he needs new technologies, financial backing, and a worldwide web of assistants as zealous as he about preserving the planet’s natural resources. Grosjean is already at work on the technology, and he’s not shy about soliciting the funds he needs. And that global army of environmentally concerned volunteers? That’s where Rotary comes in.

Raised in France, Grosjean moved to Australia in 2013, where he is the founder of and principal consultant for OceanX Group, a Melbourne-based business that provides consulting services for water-related technologies. It’s Grosjean’s responsibility to set up sensors that monitor environmental activity. “For instance,” he explains, “when you plan to dredge in a harbor and you want to know if that’s going to impact the reefs and marine life, you install an array of data buoys with computerized probes that send back information on turbidity and temperature and so forth. You specify the parameters and monitor to see if there are changes due to human activity.”

While Grosjean makes a living from his work for OceanX Group, he relies on contributions (from himself and others) to fund Ocean CleanX, his anti-plastic campaign that combines technology and crowdsourcing. “The project is linked to Rotary,” he says, noting that Ocean CleanX was included as a resource in the handbook created by the Environmental Sustainability Rotarian Action Group (ESRAG) for World Environment Day last year. “I can help to get Rotarian projects launched,” he says, “and my consultation is free.”

  • >6.00 million

    Plastic fibers released during an average laundry load of synthetic fabrics

  • $139.00 billion

    Annual environmental cost of consumer plastic use

  • 6.50 billion

    ($7.2 billion) Projected savings by 2030 from a European Union directive limiting single-use plastics

  • 10.00 inches

    Depth of all the plastics ever produced if they were spread across Argentina

Trained to collect and analyze vast amounts of data, Grosjean can recommend technologies best suited to specific oceanic conditions. But unlike many of his peers bewitched by flashing computer nodes, Grosjean does not rely on technology alone to provide solutions. He favors a mélange of high and low tech, linking computerized detectors with human eyes. If you’re going to collect all those riverborne plastics, you first have to see them.

To that end, Grosjean hopes to recruit local inhabitants (Rotarians among them) along those 10 notorious rivers, training them to branch out along river banks and report on the heaviest concentrations of discarded plastics and other pollutants. “We enlist people to locate the congested areas,” he says. “All they need are a smartphone, an app, a good pair of shoes, and gloves. That doesn’t require much funding.” Once they report back, Grosjean can set his innovative smart plastic traps — floating booms fitted with monitoring sensors — to collect the plastics and then direct removal equipment to target the most problematic locations. Ultimately, Ocean CleanX would use automated platforms to remove coastal littering.

“It’s not as if today’s technology doesn’t contribute [to solving the plastics problem] with autonomous underwater and surface vehicles, land robots, and so forth,” he says. “But people are an essential part of the solution. I’ve seen firsthand how a river cleanup completely transforms ecology.”

The inspiration for Grosjean’s mission came in his adopted hometown of Melbourne. For decades, the Yarra River, which flows through that southern Australian city into Port Phillip Bay, acted as a garbage depository for cigarette butts, plastic straws, syringes, and all manner of waste, especially plastic bottles and containers. An estimated 800 million bits of rubbish — 74 percent of them microplastics — were annually entering the bay from the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers. While the matter warrants closer study, it’s likely that fish are ingesting these plastic fragments, which are no larger than a quarter-inch in length. Grosjean participated in a cleanup of the Yarra that, between 2014 and 2017, accounted for the removal of 180 tons of litter. These days he organizes a monthly volunteer cleanup of the Yarra. “All it takes to make the world a better place is a bit of courage and tenacity,” he insists.

For Grosjean, neither is in short supply, and those qualities are augmented by brains, savvy, an effulgent smile, and a gift for attracting attention to his efforts. A few years ago, he began brandishing the bright yellow flippers he uses while scuba diving. Today they have become his signature talisman, as the nearly 1,000 attendees at the 2018 Rotary Day at the UN in Nairobi can attest. “They’re flashy and they’re a great icebreaker,” he says. “They’ve become my symbol of positive change in helping to save our oceans.”

Grosjean has a simple message for the villages and regions where plastics proliferate: “Tell us what you want, and we will help you by empowering local people.”

Still in the preliminary stages of his 10-river cleanup agenda, Grosjean is directing his ambition and abilities toward launching a pilot project. He hopes to find funding to build low-cost versions of his automated traps that capture and monitor plastics and to make the traps available to the Rotary world. “If you install them along the rivers, you can tell exactly what types of microplastic are present and monitor where they are coming from,” he explains. “Then you can send in a team of Rotarians to deal with it. Just having a team help change plastic straws to bamboo straws in coffee shops along a river would have an enormous impact. Even if the water’s not drinkable due to other pollutants, it’s no longer choked with plastics.”

As he prepares to embark on this early stage of his project, Grosjean has a simple message for the villages and regions where plastics proliferate. “Tell us what you want, and we will help you by empowering local people,” he promises. “And if in the future Rotary is interested in partnering with me, I’m ready to get the project going.”

Gert-Jan Van Dommelen, an environmental activist who co-founded Amsterdam’s End Plastic Soup initiative, has seen Grosjean at work and is convinced that his ideas will prevail. “Ludovic has a brilliant mind and the right attitude for the environment and the world we live in, but he also has the can-do mentality,” Van Dommelen says. He admires Grosjean’s “think global, act local” approach and his grounding in science. “He understands the importance and value of data to focus on the priorities and go to the source of plastic pollution.”

Both Van Dommelen and Grosjean are members of ESRAG, as is Karen Kendrick-Hands, its director of communications. “Ludovic is totally committed to Rotary’s anti-pollution efforts,” Kendrick-Hands says. “A man of ideas and concepts, he’s a leader to follow with the social skills and drive to implement his vision and achieve his objectives.”

Kendrick-Hands and Van Dommelen speak from in-depth experience: They have engaged Rotaract clubs around the world to perform cleanup actions. “We all have a joint mission, but we translate that locally as each club organizes its own activities for awareness, action, and alliances,” Van Dommelen says. “And we can start today by using less plastic.” (See “Things You Can Do,” page 31, and “Things Your Club Can Do,” page 36.)

He favors a mélange of high and low tech, linking computerized detectors with human eyes. If you’re going to collect all those riverborne plastics, you first have to see them.

To Grosjean, the accumulation of plastics in the oceans represents only a small percentage of the total global pollutants that should concern us. To consider ridding the planet of all those pollutants can seem immensely daunting — especially when you consider that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of plastic and other litter floating between California and Hawaii, now covers more than 600,000 square miles. That’s more than twice the size of Texas.

But, as Grosjean points out, the litter that can be seen in the ocean is only one part of the problem. Many tons of unseen microplastics, some as small as 1 millimeter long, get trapped below the water’s surface, where fish and other sea life ingest them. (Fibers from synthetic clothing, which slip through porous washing machine filters, are one of the main culprits, he explains.) Worse yet, Grosjean says, are the nonplastic “forgotten” threats. He rattles off an extensive list that includes nitrate runoff from crop plantings; pesticides; carbon emissions; heavy metals; heat; fishing; turbidity from dredging; and acoustic pollution that has an adverse effect on marine wildlife. “From my point of view, visible plastic is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Grosjean has also given considerable thought to what’s to be done with all that plastic refuse once it has been retrieved — which seems to be a direction we’re headed. After seven years of trial and error (mostly error), the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit founded by young Dutch innovator Boyan Slat that relies on a device resembling a gigantic folding arm to catch and contain waterborne plastics, has finally shown some signs of success. Other solutions are certain to follow, creating a deluge of recovered ocean debris. No worries, says Grosjean. “We can reuse that plastic to build houses and roads and more,” he contends. “We need to raise awareness about those solutions and showcase them. We haven’t invented everything yet. We need young innovators to design the future.”

  • 220.00pounds

    Amount of netting, rope, plastic, and other debris found inside the stomach of a dead whale that washed up on the Scottish coast

  • 98.00%

    Seabird chicks in one study that had ingested plastic

  • 1.00 in 3

    Proportion of fish caught in the English Channel that contain plastic

There is one characteristic that, by his own admission, Grosjean lacks: patience. “I want to enable expert groups to share their experiences across continents, starting right now,” he exclaims.

He reiterated that message at the breakout session he helped conduct at last year’s Rotary International Convention in Hamburg, Germany. “Getting rid of water pollution is one of the most urgent matters for the planet,” he said. “It would benefit millions of people who have poor access to clean water, and it would help the environment to recover. It would also maintain the equilibrium required for a healthy food chain.”

In private conversation, Grosjean makes it clear he’s willing to take a leading role in that effort. “The first way for me to get involved is by educating, communicating, and informing,” he says. “The second way I can help is by proposing a solution. Mine is Ocean CleanX, where you empower people with the right technology so they can achieve goals and measure their results.”

Undaunted by the challenge, Grosjean reveals two more personal traits: optimism and hope. “I’ve seen amazing innovators create incredible technology, so I’m very hopeful,” he says. “I’m very convinced we have a way to do it.”

Based in California, Stephen Yafa is the author of three books and a longtime contributor to The Rotarian.

Trick or treat

We all know plastic bags are trash, but sea turtles are often tricked into thinking they’re a treat. They munch on the floating bags, mistaking them for jellyfish, or eat other bits of plastic that look like algae or seagrass. More than 50 percent of the world’s sea turtles are estimated to have eaten plastic — and some of them have ingested hundreds of pieces of it. 

Bags can cause intestinal blockages, sharp plastics can rupture organs, and the decomposition of debris can trap gases and make turtles more buoyant so that they have a harder time swimming to feed or to escape predators. Young turtles are most vulnerable, in part because they will eat whatever floats past them.

Large pieces of plastic aren’t the only threat to turtles. Researchers in a 2018 study found microplastics in the guts of every sea turtle they looked at; potential sources of the microplastics included tires, cigarettes, clothing, and marine equipment. The effects of the microplastics on the turtles are not yet known.

When two loggerhead turtles were released on the coast of Sicily in November, members of the Rotary Club of Bagheria, Italy, helped organize an educational event attended by hundreds of local students. The two turtles, named Sira and Scheggia, had been discovered by local officials who saw that they had trouble breathing. Veterinarians at a national animal health institute treated them and discovered they had ingested plastic bags, polystyrene flakes, lollipop sticks, and other material, says Giorgio Castelli, executive secretary of the Bagheria club. Rotarians helped educate the students about the problems of marine pollution. The event was part of a broader District 2110 focus on protecting the environment in 2019-20, which included placing colorful fish-shaped plastic recycling containers throughout the region. The containers are called “flavofish” after the flavobacterium, a kind of bacteria once associated with breaking down nylon.

Trash to treasure

According to a recent report, the Philippines is one of the top three countries contributing to ocean plastic pollution, behind only China and India. And Manila, the capital, generates the most plastic litter of any urban area in the world.

The country’s status as a “sachet economy” plays a major role in its plastic problem. These palm-size packets allow low-income consumers to buy single servings of nearly anything for pennies: shampoo, toothpaste, lotions, laundry soap, food, and drinking water. They give people access to higher quality products that they might not otherwise be able to afford. But sachets are made of a complex sandwich of plastic and aluminum (picture ketchup and hot sauce packets) that is nearly impossible to recycle. And the country uses nearly 60 billion of these sachets a year, enough to blanket metropolitan Manila a foot deep.

Compounding the problem are issues with waste disposal. One report found that 74 percent of plastic marine pollution in the Philippines comes from trash that has been collected but is dumped into the water by haulers to cut costs or into landfills poorly located near waterways. And garbage collection is unreliable in poorer communities, where people are most likely to use sachets.

The Rotaract Club of Tagbilaran, on the island of Bohol, is focusing on the issue of single-use plastics. Working with Fablab Bohol Philippines, the country’s first state-of-the-art digital fabrication laboratory, members of the club designed prototypes for souvenir items made of recycled spoons from nearby ice cream shops. The project won an award during a national Rotaract competition. The club also is working to reduce plastic straw use by selling metal straws in a locally handcrafted pouch. “Maybe sooner or later, our country will no longer be the third-largest plastic polluter, but be the third least,” says Jerome Manatad, who launched the spoon project during his year as club president. “We believe that taking simple action today can build a better future for the generations to come.”

• Illustrations by Studio Warburton

• This story originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

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