Studying the ocean plastic pollution: all about the life of the Race for Water scientists!

Over the past two weeks, six European scientists from the Ephemare project have been aboard the Race for Water vessel to study the plastic pollution of the oceans. What are the protocols, the aims and the techniques used?  Explanations from Bénédicte Morin, teacher and research at the University of Bordeaux.

 

Six European scientists from the Ephemare study project sampling beaches to learn about plastic pollution.

Race for Water (R4W): What have you come to study in the waters around Guadeloupe and how is this approach breaking new ground?

Bénédicte Morin (BM): We’ve come to study the quantity, the type and the toxicity of the microplastics present in various environments within the ecosystem. We’ve tested four of these environments: sand, sediment, water and biota (the latter corresponds with individuals living in the marine environment). During the 2015 odyssey, we studied pollution via microplastics from the beach environment the world over. This time, we’re interested in having a global vision of the plastic contamination through the study of various areas spanning the same sampling site.

 

On board, the first analyses !

R4W: How do you obtain samples of microplastics in these different areas?

BM: On the beaches, we use a quadrant technique, which means delimiting a zone on the beach so as to quantify and then qualify the microplastics present on site. With regards to the surface of the water, we tow ‘nets’ behind the vessel. We collect microplastics or plankton, very small organisms at the root of the food chain, according to the size of the mesh for each net. In order to test the sediment (gravel, sand or mud found at the bottom of the water), we dive down and pick up a sample of the soil with the help of a Van Veen grab. To round off our work, we bought some fish from the local fishermen and then dissected them so we could analyse the presence of microplastics in the digestive tract. We were able to take samples from organisms such as sea urchins and oysters near the beaches sampled.

 

Studiing sand and sediment to understand all cycle of plastic pollution.

R4W: What results have you amassed from this sampling?

BM: For now, we’ve only completed the ‘harvesting’ stage. All our samples will be sent off to our universities in Italy and France. The characterisation of microplastics is a procedure that is carried out in a laboratory environment and requires a certain amount of time.

However, we’ve chosen to study two sites in Guadeloupe: one on the eastern seaboard of the island of Basse Terre and the other on south-eastern seaboard of the island of Marie-Galante, so those that have debris from the Atlantic washing up on their beaches. We’ve observed a greater abundance of macro and microplastic on the eastern seaboard of the island of Marie-Galante probably linked to the waste carried along by the currents that make up the North Atlantic gyre, which notably include a vast amount of fibre from fishing activities. The Basse Terre site, despite being located on the Atlantic coast, is probably protected from the waste by the neighbouring island of Grande Terre.

 

Propulsed by renewables energies, the Race for Water vessel is used by scientists to study plastic pollution in Guadeloupe.

R4W: In conclusion, what do you think of this oceanic campaign with the Race for Water Foundation?

BM: Quite frankly, I’m delighted and I’m sure my colleagues are too. The vessel is incredibly spacious and we can carry out some high-quality work on her, added to which the teams aboard the boat have given us a very warm welcome. It’s just extraordinary to be able to carry out oceanic studies without any environmental impact and noise-free thanks to this vessel being propelled by clean energies.

Fly-tipping and mangrove

 

“There was the Guadeloupe before, and after this experiment in the mangrove”, says Serge Pittet, CEO of the Foundation. Whilst it had been over a week since the teams from Race for Water had been criss-crossing the island in order to try to understand the problem of plastic pollution, the conclusions were supposedly rather positive: no massive piles of rubbish on the beaches, a few abandoned bin bags but not really any sign of fly-tipping. Everyone seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief. “You haven’t been to the right places,” retorts Julien, a fishing guide on the island. For several years, the young man has been bringing his fishing-fanatic clients into the mangrove with a ‘no-kill’ policy, a technique aimed at immediately releasing the fish after catching it. “If you like, I can call round to collect you at dawn on Monday morning to show you the reality”.

At 6:30am on the dot, Serge and Peter, the Foundation’s media man, climb aboard Julien’s little flat-bottomed boat. Initially running parallel to the refinery in Point-à-Pitre, it’s amidst a setting of vast tanks marked ‘heavy fuel’ and ‘residue’ that the explorers slowly make headway. In the distance, they can make out a beach, covered in macro-waste. “The ambient air smelt of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), but it would have been necessary to analyse the water and the sand”, explains Serge. According to Julien, this odour was due to the decaying green algae, a remnant from the recent passage of Hurricane Maria.

Heading deeper into the mangrove, Julien then takes them along a branch of the Rivière Salée (Salt River), which the fishermen have nicknamed “rivière caca” (poo river). “We were making our way along the dump at La Gabarre, which we guessed had a massive mound of ochre red earth behind it,” says Serge. “From a distance, the water just looked a little brownish. As we got closer, we discovered a large quantity of plastic waste of all kinds, abandoned cars, TV screens stuck in the sludge and even a dead animal”. For the first time since they’d arrived in Guadeloupe, the Race for Water teams discovered a fly-tipping site. According to certain sources, the latter has been around for many years and, though selective sorting of waste is now compulsory on the island, through ease perhaps some people are still disposing of their waste in the river. “Clearly, it’s important to continue raising awareness among the local inhabitants, explaining to them about the toxicity of plastic waste and helping them to take action. These findings repeated throughout this tour of the islands give meaning to the actions carried out by the Foundation,” says Peter.

 

Visit from a very special class

 

When Annabelle began her speech during one of the many visits from schools aboard the boat, little did she know that she would come face to face with such special students. “This particular class has been entrusted with the task of managing a protected marine area by the Ministry of National Education and the Environment”, explains Yanni Bardail proudly, director of the school. At just 10 years of age, these children have been carrying out activities in the area to help preserve it and raise awareness among the population in a bid to protect Loquet cove in St-François, to the south of the island. From the classrooms they head out to clean the beach, work with scientists, measure and collect rubbish and inform the local population about the need to preserve the fauna and flora along Guadeloupe’s coastline.

 

PLASTIC, THE NO.1 ENEMY

“On our beach, there are two types of plastics: those that people throw away and those which come from the sea”, explains one child. Aware of the importance of education, the students are raising awareness among the local inhabitants through information campaigns and display boards to explain the life cycles of the endemic species and take political action: “Last year, the town hall wanted to set up a tourist attraction on the beach. The students then wrote letters in order to explain the vital importance of this site for turtles, it being one of the rare egg laying sites,” said the Director. It proved to be a very successful action for these young children, which resulted in the attraction being moved to a less sensitive site. “We are training up the youngsters, who are environmentally-responsible, future scientists as well as tomorrow’s politicians,” says Yanni Bardail. “Being able to come along and meet Race for Water shows the children that they’re not alone and that other people are carrying out action too on a grand scale. They understand how important their action is, even though they’re still only children.” Inevitably this is a class that the Race for Water Foundation hopes to continue to follow. See you in January!

 

Mon École ma Baleine and the Guadeloupe’s Network of Marine Turtles alongside Race for Water to raise children’s awareness about plastic pollution of the oceans

Guadeloupe after Hurricane Maria

Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, Wednesday, September 20: Twenty-four hours after Hurricane Maria hit Guadeloupe

“I know what it’s like to ride out a hurricane, and I’ve done it every year since I was born. But this time, it’s different. The hurricanes are stronger and more frequent. We’re emotionally drained and we know that hurricane season isn’t over yet. Since September 10, two Category Five hurricanes’ Irma and Maria have hit the Antilles, causing massive destruction on Saint Martin and Dominica. As we stand at the reception desk of the waterfront hotel in Pointe-à-Pitre, the manager describes the situation to us, including the fact that there’s no running water or Wifi. Along with Race for Water’s land-based team, we’ll spend our first night in Guadeloupe in this hotel ; Race for Water is still out at sea, to avoid the worst of the hurricane. We’re all exhausted and we head to bed.

Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, Thursday, September 21: The calm between storms

We get up at dawn and head toward the city to assess the damage. Although it looks like most buildings were spared, Maria’s wrath is clearly visible: the streets and sidewalks are blocked by downed trees and branches, and boats are washed up on the shore. The sky is the color of lead and the humidity is crushing. But all the same, we feel lucky when we think of the storm’s magnitude.

Before noon, Race for Water appears over the southern horizon. Franck, Luce, and Annabelle have been waiting for her, and they talk to the marina staff about finding a different mooring, since the violent winds caused some damage in the port. Aurélie is here with us to welcome Race for Water into port, and she’s thrilled to be able to get out of the house. “The government had asked us to stay indoors with enough food and water to last until the curfew was lifted.” She tells us about a hair-raising night, with wind gusts up to 200 kilometers an hour. But her house had no serious damage. “We were really lucky. But the western part of the island that we call Basse-Terre was hit much harder. The road to it is cut off,” she tells us.

By early afternoon, Race for Water is moored and we rush to greet the crew. They were able to chart a course around the massive storm, and conditions were relatively good. They’ve barely disembarked from the ship when they’re all asking, “How are conditions on the island? Was there a lot of damage?” To answer that question, we have to go to the hardest-hit area.

 

Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, Saturday, September 22: Life gets back to normal

In order to understand the damage caused by the hurricane, and to study the plastics pollution that the storm caused, we leave at dawn for Basse-Terre, on the western side of the island. “It should be interesting to look at the mouths of the rivers and the beaches nearby, because trash always piles up there when it rains a lot,” says Peter Charaf, media coordinator for the Race for Water Foundation. We take a road through a dense forest, and the trees around us are completely shredded. It’s as if the wind came through like a buzz-saw, crushing entire swaths of vegetation as it passed. Along the coast, the roads and waterfront neighborhoods are littered with boulders, rocks, and sand. A resident in Trois-Rivières tells us, “Our houses are really well-built, and only ten roofs blew off.” The beaches are covered with driftwood and we see a few pieces of discarded plastic. There’s some pollution, but not much. A young man sits in front of his wooden hut holding a broom. He tells us, “In Bouillante, NGOs and local residents came to clean up the trash. We all want to preserve the oceans and we know that plastics waste is a problem.” This is good news for the Race for Water Foundation, and it shows the impact of regular beach cleanups. It’s only been a few days since a Category Five hurricane came through and the countryside is a mess. But life in Guadeloupe is beginning to get back to normal. It’s fortunate that the people of Guadeloupe are environmentally aware, but some neighboring islands aren’t so lucky.

 

In Guadeloupe !

Today the Race for Water vessel arrived in Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe) where the Odyssey aims to bring support and solutions to the local population. Dock next to the Memorial ACT, the navigation was intense further to the passage of the cyclone Maria.

Return in images on this last navigation between the Dominican Republic and Guadeloupe.
https://youtu.be/jvoNcQzJNnc
When you’re told there’s an emergency…

 

Second in command in rotation with Anne-Laure, I’m in Paris at the moment. I should be above the Atlantic, heading for Guadeloupe. The flight is postponed of course to give Maria a chance to roll through leaving a trail of destructive madness in her wake. It leaves me the time to think about our planet and our mission.

Three destructive hurricanes: Harvey, Irma and now Maria, and the season’s not over yet… This year has been particularly rife with hurricane activity on the Atlantic seaboard and a storm is also taking shape on the Pacific coast towards Mexico. The hurricanes in question have again managed to set the records tumbling in terms of wind strength, stirred-up seas and rain with the obvious consequences and the damage inflicted.

And this sad crop of records is the same right around the planet, with dangerous weather phenomena increasing in frequency and in strength globally and in worrying fashion. How is it possible that some still doubt that climate change exists?

Our planet is so beautiful, it seems so obvious to me that we need to protect it, that we need to take action… Obviously, you have to question what one little person, a little human being, can do against 3 hurricanes, against the climatic imbalance.

It’s easy to let yourself get overwhelmed, let it get on top of you. That’s not how I see it though. I want to fight, I want to participate, I want to do my bit. I don’t know what state Guadeloupe will be in on our arrival, but I’m sure we’ll be able to take action. Assisting the locals all we can if need be and presenting our mission of course.

We’re spreading our message of hope, sharing the energy transition solutions, which we’re trialling day after day on the boat. Indeed, these renewable energies are enabling us to make headway calmly but surely, which enables us to move the Race For Water platform around for hosting guests and exchanging with them.

We’re showing that it’s possible, that we have to believe in it, that solutions exist, and of course, as if we needed a reminder, that there’s an emergency… I hope that Guadeloupe will be in a state to listen to our message, and if this isn’t case, I hope that those who are not affected by these climatic disasters will.

Annabelle

 

New hurricane alert from MARIA resulting in a delayed arrival in Guadeloupe!

The summer season in the Antilles arc is often punctuated by a string of tropical storms. Though this is a familiar phenomenon, it is no less impressive and this year appears to be particularly intense and unusual. Indeed, the specialists agree that the frequency of these meteorological events and their violence are nothing short of exceptional.

Officially starting on 1 June, the 2017 hurricane season in the North Atlantic Ocean is set to extend through until 30 November 2017 according to the World Meteorological Organisation.

In the meantime, the various weather forecasting centres are continuing to send out alerts about the formation of these low pressure centres and their evolution.

In this way, on Sunday 17 September, the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) confirmed that storm MARIA has moved up to the status of a hurricane.

This latest hurricane is due to pass the Antilles arc and more especially Guadeloupe this Monday evening. The red alert has been triggered in Guadeloupe. As a result, on Friday Pascal Morizot and the crew of Race for Water took the wise decision to adopt a course a long way to the south of the zone in question. This longer and safer detour will enable them to circumnavigate this tropical low, which will generate heavy seas and winds bordering on 150-180 km/hr as it rolls through.

Aboard the boat, all is well and you can track Race for Water’s course on the cartography, which is accessible here: http://tracker-odyssey.addviso.org/fr/

The latest ETA is scheduled for the afternoon on Thursday 21 September in the Marina du Fort in Pointe à Pitre.

Hurricane Irma: the decisions taken for safety reasons

On 7 September, hurricane Irma struck the Dominican Republic. A week prior to this date, whilst we were moored in the military port of Santo Domingo, busying ourselves with boat maintenance and checks for wear and tear, that day’s weather report alerted us to the fact that a potentially dangerous weather system was forming. Given the forecasts, we abandoned our plan to sail to Samana, to the north of the island. Indeed, the grib files clearly showed a vortex forming, which was set to grow over the coming days. The ensuing period only served to confirm the approach of hurricane Irma. On the weather charts we were watching the fierce winds sweeping across the heavenly islands as they turned into a hellish situation, severely impacting on the local populations. The first consequence of this in the port of Santo Domingo was that the entire military fleet moved to a more sheltered zone.

Grib file indicating the strength and direction of the winds from hurricane Irma

 

We ended up on our own on what had turned into a long, deserted dock. We studied and checked the various options possible, but nothing seemed to us to be suitable for such a special boat. Indeed, the floats on the Race For Water are ‘wave-piercing’ and sit very low to the water, the deck barely 70cm above the surface. This unique feature meant that we couldn’t keep our fenders in position in the event of heavy seas. As such, we couldn’t tie the boat alongside with such little protection. One of the possibilities was to leave port and sail due east in order to distance ourselves from Irma, but that didn’t seem necessary in our view.

SIT AND WAIT

As a result, we took the option to remain in the military port. We positioned the vessel at anchor, stern facing towards the dock, which was a good distance away, tripling up on the mooring warps for added safety. The harbour authorities were quite concerned by the fact that we were staying in the military port. However, the forecasts were not a worry for the south coast of the Dominican Republic where we were located. Irma’s trajectory was due to take her to the north of the island. 20 knots of southerly wind were announced, whereas we had 35 knots of established wind in reality. When the wind picks up like that, well beyond the forecasts, it’s a little worrying. However, the weather isn’t an exact science. It does make you wonder how far it’s going to increase to. At that point, we decided to add our towing warp to the mix so as to bolster up our mooring system. “Too strong never failed” as any sailor will tell you. Shortly after that, the wind eased and dropped back down to the forecast 20-knot southerly wind.

The stormy skies of the hurricane have rolled through now. Aboard the boat we were all too aware of how lucky we were to be on the right side of the island. The port of “Sans Soucis” or ‘No Worries” is aptly named….

Jean- Marc

 

Plastic: vast amount of work in Dominican Republic

A fortnight on from her arrival in the Dominican Republic, the Race for Water vessel is still dockside in the military port of Sans-Souci in Santo Domingo and the team is right in the thick of things, working with the young generations, the general public and the institutions to raise awareness about the struggle against plastic pollution.

Amidst the enthusiasm encountered by our odyssey and the reality on the ground, the crew is very much aware of the vast amount of work that sadly still remains to be done in terms of plastic waste, as shown in the video below (©Peter Charaf/Race for Water).

Journal du Dimanche #3: A machine that might save the oceans?

Ecology: At sea with the crew of the yacht Race for Water, sailor and mountaineer Eric Loizeau is raising awareness about the state of the world’s oceans.

Update from Santo Domingo: An innovative process for burning plastic

The waters of the Caribbean sea look more grey than blue today, with the threatening sky casting a yellow tint across the waves. Through the soupy fog, we can just make out the coast, on the horizon. We’re the only boat on the water, with the exception of two small fishing boats. There’s not a single cargo ship, oil tanker, or cruise ship. Our AIS real-time ship tracker is empty and silent. But we’re not alone; amid the long brown fronds of sargassum seaweed, there’s more and more debris: bottles, plastic, pieces of white polystyrene. They’re a sign that we’re nearing civilization, even if we can’t see it yet.

As soon as we’re off the open water and in Santo Domingo, we’ll return to our work—spreading the word about the environment, and inviting school groups, politicians, and scientists on board Race for Water. I really enjoy those sessions, and I think that my fellow crewmembers do too. It’s a chance to share our commitment to saving the oceans on board Race for Water, where the slow pace of travel keeps us rooted in the present moment and helps us reflect.

 

Transforming plastic into fuel

Once on land, we meet up with Race for Water Foundation president Marco Simeoni. He was the driving force behind the first Race for Water Odyssey to protect the oceans, back in 2015 on board the MOD70 trimaran. I worked as a crew member on that boat for two months, from Valparaiso, Chile to Hawaii. And I saw for myself that microplastics have invaded our beach sand, our ocean sediment, and of course the ocean water itself. Oceans form 70% of the earth’s biosphere, and they are highly contaminated, with six times more plastics than plankton in them.

Motivated by that information, the Foundation has been working since 2016 to prevent discarded plastics from entering the oceans. This involves developing recycling solutions—even if it’s possible and desirable to reduce the production and use of plastics, we know that they won’t be completely eliminated in the near future. In Valparaiso, Marco talked to roving garbage-pickers who are paid to collect metal cans and glass bottles, and this sparked an idea. “They never collected plastic because it had no commercial value,” he explained. But if plastic could be transformed into energy, gas, or electricity, the garbage-pickers could earn money, and thus they would be motivated to collect the discarded plastic.

The Race for Water Foundation partnered with ETIA, a French company that specializes in thermally-powered recycling of biomass. ETIA’s goal is to “develop industrial and economic solutions to address the threat of ocean pollution caused by discarded plastics, while also addressing the growing energy needs of islands and coastal cities that are directly impacted by this pollution,” says ETIA CEO Olivier Lepez. Lepez then explained how ETIA’s innovative technology works; it has been fine-tuned, and will be in operation before the end of 2017.

Like all organic matter, plastics have great potential as an energy source. The patented Biogreen® process uses reactions such as pyrolysis, torrefaction and gasification to harness the energy power of materials such as biomass, plastic or fuel residue. Pyrolysis is caused by heating materials to high temperatures without oxygen, so that there is no combustion. Above a certain temperature, the material chemically decomposes and is transformed into gases, liquids, or solids.

But pyrolysis alone is not enough to trap plastic’s energy power, primarily in the form of a gas. A new process was needed: very high-temperature pyrolysis without oxygen. This thermal process at over 800°C depends on a specialized piece of equipment—a Spirajoule®–and produces a synthetic gas called syngas, made up of methane and hydrogen.

Social and environmental advantages

The syngas is then cleaned through filtration, purification, and condensation. The goal of this crucial phase is to eliminate dust, fine particles, tar-like fatty acids and condensable gases, as well as unwanted molecules such as chlorine and other pollutants. The gas is purified, rendered non-toxic and can then be used as a fuel in electricity-generating engines or turbines.

This machine offers many advantages. It is compact, modular and portable. It takes only a few weeks to set up a unit than can process five to 12 tons of waste plastic per day. Multiple machines can work in parallel to process even larger quantities. The Biogreen® system complies with the strictest environmental standards and is European Community-certified.

Small and medium-capacity technical solutions promote decentralized waste management and energy production. This model has already been tested and proven in several Nordic countries, and is known to be efficient, and socially and environmentally advantageous. It’s not only an innovative technology—it’s proof that discarded plastic can be an additional resource for the energy transition, while generating socio-economic and environmental benefits. This is especially true in economically disadvantaged countries that generate the bulk of their electricity from petroleum. This is true of many tropical islands such as the Dominican Republic—hence the reason for our stopover in Santo Domingo, and our meetings with government representatives.

Transforming millions of tons of discarded plastic into energy every year would be a huge boon to human health and the survival of plants and animals, while providing an income for many roving garbage-pickers. The Race for Water Foundation’s strategic objective is for this model to be scaled worldwide by 2025.

Source: Le JDD