More than eleven million tonnes of plastic make their way into our oceans every year and a large proportion of this waste is carried there by rivers. The Aachen based start-up Everwave has developed technology that can be used to help collect this waste. The company was honoured with the KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award for its efforts.
Remnants of our modern lifestyle such as bags, straws, bottles and flip-flops can be found drifting throughout the world’s oceans. When Marcella Hansch saw more plastic than fish while diving in the waters around the Cape Verde Islands, the aspiring architect decided to do something about it. She dedicated her master’s thesis to designing a 400-metre long floating platform that can collect rubbish in the ocean. Putting such a model into practice is complicated. Hansch founded an association in order to further develop the concept with like-minded individuals and devoted all of her spare time to the project.
She presented her idea at an international film festival and not only won over the audience, but also the host of the event, Clemens Feigl. Together, they decided to take the plunge and give up their day jobs to set up a limited company. Tilman Floehr, who had been an active member of the association, was determined to bring the project to fruition. Today, the company is called Everwave, employs a number of people and has won many awards, including the KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award.
Rivers of waste
As much as it makes sense to collect plastic waste in the oceans, the fact remains that 80 per cent of the waste originates from land. It is transported into the ocean by rivers. So it stands to reason that making our rivers cleaner will also make our oceans cleaner. Another advantage is that the material is in a considerably better state when it is still in the rivers, as it has not been on the move for so long and the sun and seawater have not yet taken their toll. This means that it can be put back into circulation and recycled, at least in part.
The three entrepreneurs therefore adapted the initial design of the waste collection platform so that it can be used in rivers. The internal architecture creates light turbulence, which steers solid materials in the water into the reservoir, where they are stored until the unit is emptied. The platform is made up of several modules, which allows it to be adapted to the amount of waste that has accumulated.
The platform ensures the river remains clean on a continuous basis. However, if a large amount of waste needs to be dealt with, a special boat is deployed. The boat acts as a floating bulk waste collection device and can remove up to 20 tonnes of waste a day. Back on land, the waste is sorted and, wherever possible, recycled.
Analysis using drones and AI
To prevent waste from entering the water in the first place, it is important to know where it comes from. To this end, Everwave collects data using cameras and sensors on the boat and on bridges. Furthermore, a drone flies over the site to capture images and make videos of the waste in the water. The data is evaluated using artificial intelligence. In this way, the amount of waste can be analysed in detail and even predicted. If waste material from production is detected on a regular basis, the next step is to notify the culprits. Finding food packaging floating in a river at the beginning of the week, on the other hand, can indicate that there are not enough litter bins at a popular picnic location upstream.
When waste like this is discovered, it is especially important to raise people’s awareness of the effects of their behaviour. This is the third pillar of Everwave: “Technology alone cannot solve the problem. Germany is one of the countries with the highest amount of waste per capita. A large proportion is exported abroad to countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia, where the waste cannot be recycled because they do not have the necessary structures in place. So anyone who uses plastic here in Germany also holds responsibility for the plastic in our oceans,” explains Marcella Hansch.
To raise awareness among the youngest generation, Everwave has developed educational material for use in primary schools. “Not only are children very interested in these topics, they often encourage adults to reassess their behaviour.”
In cooperation with all stakeholders
Although companies are increasingly seeking to use less plastic, the transition will still take a number of years. Until then, Everwave offers operators the opportunity to compensate for their waste. This is achieved through Plastic Credits, which are comparable to CO2 certificates. For one euro, the start-up collects one kilo of waste at particularly afflicted sites. This is how their work is financed. In return, the companies are permitted to advertise their efforts or apply their logo to the boats.
Local residents are involved in the work on site such as steering the boats or sorting the waste. The sheer amount of waste always attracts much attention. “In Serbia, many local politicians were among the spectators on the riverbank. In Slovakia, we appeared in all the newspapers and on TV,” says Tilman Floehr. “Everywhere we go, we have the opportunity to spread the word about our mission. That is important because we can promote environmental protection and the expansion of local recycling technologies in this way, as well as offer advice.”
It has been over ten years since Marcella Hansch took the decision to no longer accept plastic in the water as a given. Everwave has already proved that the solutions work in practice. Now the goal is to deploy the solutions at as many locations as possible. “In 2022, our platform will be on a long-term deployment in northern Italy. There and in Serbia and Cambodia, boats will be collecting waste. We are also holding talks with several countries in Africa. We are absolutely convinced that we will succeed in making the world a whole lot cleaner!” says Hansch.
Published on KfW Stories on 17 January 2022.