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Water Today Title April 21, 2024

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Update 2023/6/26
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Clean Rivers Save Oceans

UN Top Innovator Germany-based Plastic Fischer focuses on rivers to prevent ocean plastic, and create jobs with low-tech collection systems

By Suzanne Forcese

“We realized that every single piece of plastic that we saw would eventually end up in the sea forever, break down to microplastic, threatening biodiversity and marine life” -- Karsten Hirsch CEO & Founder Plastic Fischer

Germany-based social enterprise Plastic Fischer founded in 2019 by 3 friends after witnessing plastic pollution in the Mekong River in Vietnam is now internationally recognized and expanding operations in India and Indonesia. A floating barrier aims to prevent tons of plastic waste from entering the oceans. Trashboom is a modular solution made of locally available materials that uses simple technology at a low cost Attached with steel mesh that goes 50 centimetres deep, each unit can be connected to others to form a chain that can easily adapt to different river sizes.

Interview with Karsten Hirsch, CEO of Plastic Fischer

WT: Please give us an overview of your start-up, Plastic Fischer.

Hirsch: Plastic Fischer is a Germany-based social enterprise that develops cost-effective technologies to collect plastic from rivers to prevent it from entering the oceans. In 2019, it was one of the very first companies worldwide to tackle RiverPlastic to stop Ocean Plastic.

WT: What is your 3L Initiative?

Hirsch: Plastic Fischer’s 3L Initiative stands for Local, Low-Tech, Low-Cost. We manufacture TrashBooms from locally available material and employ local people.

Avoiding imports saves time, money, and carbon. We believe that using low-tech solutions has many benefits. It can be built and repaired in place and be easily operated by anyone. Locally built, low-tech solutions allow for low-cost operations, which is crucial to offer waste-management services at scale.

WT: Plastic Fischer was recently recognized as one of the Top Innovators at the recent UN Conference in New York. Congratulations on that achievement. What did this mean for you and the team?

Hirsch: We are proud to be associated with Uplink and the UN 2023 Water Conference. Thanks to their support, we were able to be in touch with influential people and organizations that hopefully will push us toward more impact.

WT: You are a lawyer, what was the impetus for you to correct course to entrepreneurship?

Hirsch: After graduating from law school, I went on vacation to Vietnam with two of my engineer friends, Aviel Itzhak and Harish Shenoy. We witnessed the plastic pollution of the Mekong. We realized the steady stream of plastic, Styrofoam, and other waste had nothing to stop it. Every single piece would eventually end up in the ocean, breaking down into microplastics threatening biodiversity and marine life

A few months later we founded Plastic Fischer and moved to Indonesia, where we developed the TrashBoom. We proved this technology in one of the most polluted rivers in the world -- the Citarum River.

During the pandemic, we hired project managers in India and Indonesia and successfully set up operations in several cities.

Today we have created more than 80 full-time jobs in the countries, and operate systems in 35 rivers and streams. We have collected and managed more than 750 metric tons of river plastic since April 2021, and we are stopping more than 50,000 kg of it every month. 

We are looking forward to scaling much more in the coming months and years. We aim to stop at least 10% of marine plastic pollution annually.

WT: How is plastic pollution hurting our planet?

Hirsch: It is one of the most pressing environmental issues our planet faces today. The created plastic materials are difficult to process and recycle and are often mismanaged. This is why they are progressively filling up our oceans and causing serious problems for marine life, human health, and the ecosystem as a whole. Plastic pollution has the potential to modify ecosystems’ capacity to adapt to climate change, altering habitats, natural processes, and the social and economic well-being of millions of people. By 2050, researchers anticipate that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish if the current rate of plastic pollution continues.

WT: And your solution?

Kirsch: Every year, millions of tons of plastic waste leak into the ocean, much of it coming from 1,000 heavily polluted rivers, responsible for 80% of ocean pollution. We stop plastic before it can enter the oceans with our Trashboom Systems and work closely with local communities. 

Working in waste management creates awareness and leads to behaviour changes. We want to play a significant role in preventing ocean plastic, but it takes more stakeholders to collaborate with a major shift change.

Changes are required in policymaking that force industry to change. Changes in household policy need to happen by offering people alternatives to plastic disposal.

 WT: Describe your technology. Why is it practical, simple, sustainable, and cost-effective?

Kirsch: Our award-winning technology called “Trashboom” is a modular swimming barrier that stops all floating materials in the first 50 cm of the water column. The technology is quick and simple with our 3L Initiative. The technology is deployed in rivers or tributaries and stops the plastic through the natural flow of the river without interfering with marine life, as the fence gives enough space for them to swim underneath.

WT: What happens to the collected plastic?

Kirsch: Every day our employees empty the systems and segregate the river plastic in our Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs)

Only 5% of the collected material is recyclable (such as PET, HDPE, and Aluminum) and sold to local off-takers to reintroduce into the supply chain.

95% of the non-organic material is not recyclable. It is sent to cement plants for “co-processing.” Plastic supplements the use of fossil fuels (coal) and is burned in cement kilns for energy recovery. This process is in line with international best practices and is currently the best alternative to landfilling or letting plastic end up in the environment.

WT: Education is a big part of your mission. How are you achieving this?

Kirsch: Plastic Fischer conducts volunteer beach/riverbank clean-up drives in the operational cities on a regular basis and invites volunteers to take action. People from local communities often join as volunteers and local NGOs partner with Plastic Fischer. We want to work more closely with schools and help raise plastic pollution awareness.

WT: What projects have you undertaken so far and what are the results?

Kirsch: We are operating in Varanasi, Kanpur, Mangalore, Trivandrum in India, and Bandung in Indonesia with 34 Trashboom Systems deployed to date by creating more than 80 local jobs. We were able to collect and manage over 750,000 kilograms of plastic and prevent it from destroying marine ecosystems.

WT: Moving forward...what is next?

Kirsch: We want to scale within India and Indonesia and cover more cities that are leaking plastics into rivers and oceans. We are looking for companies to partner with that have an interest in supporting our work

We want to make a significant contribution to curbing the global plastic pollution problem.


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