From Open Ocean to Open Data

One of the four pillars of Source of Change is to help restore our environment to a more natural state. The SeaCleaners hope to do exactly that by helping remove plastic debris from our oceans and waterways with their Manta. Unsurprisingly, this exciting new project caught Spadel’s attention. Even more, Spadel has entered into a partnership with the team behind this technological marvel. We spoke with Yannick Lerat, The SeaCleaners’ Scientific Director, to find out more about their work.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to us Yannick. Just briefly, tell us a little about yourself and your work with The SeaCleaners.

“My heart has always been with the sea, which is why I have a PhD in Oceanography. After spending 15 years working on biocontamination, biofilm waste reduction and developing medical diagnostic and antimicrobial products with Kodak Eastman, I led R&D at the Centre d’Etude et de Valorisation des Algues (CEVA), before joining The SeaCleaners in May 2019. A friend of mine had seen one of their posts on LinkedIn and forwarded it to me. I sent them my resume and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“It really is the opportunity of a lifetime: making the link between plastic and the health of our oceans, the scientific and technical issues… It’s hugely exciting working with an association that operates like a start-up; nothing is set. As Scientific Director I am the bridge between the Executive Committee and the rest of the scientific and global community. Having a scientific background and being able to communicate with the world at large is invaluable. Scientists tend to stick with their area of expertise and don’t interact too much. With The SeaCleaners we want to change this.”

Clearly you are passionate about our oceans, but what do you feel is the biggest threat to our planet today? Is it greenhouse gasses, rising sea levels, a lack of education…?

“I’d honestly say pollution of all kinds, including our oceans. We urgently need a different economic model, not just recycling – although this a big part of the solution – but a circular economy. One where nothing is wasted, and we start respecting our planet and raw materials. This requires a major change in human behaviour, both at a corporate and citizen level. We need to start respecting ourselves and each other instead of pushing a system that thrives on pollution.”

What should everybody know about the effects of plastic pollution?

“Depending on whether you’re looking at surface area or total volume, our planet consists of 70 to 90% water. Clean water is essential to life on Earth. But even us scientists don’t know what the long-term impact of plastic pollution will be. We know toxic chemicals impact the environment, and we know that pollution impacts marine life as well as the economy. Fish are, after all, an important economic resource for communities around the globe. But we have no idea how long it takes for plastic to completely degrade, or even to become microplastics, and how this will impact our ecosystem. We’ve all seen pictures of seahorses floating along on a cotton bud and birds that have choked on fishing nets, but are only just beginning to understand there are toxic as well as behavioural effects.”

Is there anything we can do about all the plastic floating around our oceans right now?

“Yes, absolutely, we can clean up plastics floating on the surface. But right now, there is nothing we can do about the debris on our ocean floors. Once the plastic sinks, it is too late. We simply don’t have the technology to retrieve it. Even along the coastlines, current technology is too damaging to delicate marine life such as coral reefs. Getting rid of single use plastics, increasing recycling and so on are important steps forward. But the challenge is twofold: changing human behaviour and the ongoing development of new and improved technologies.”

What are The SeaCleaners currently working on?

“Our main focus is building the factory ship that will collect floating debris and valorise it on board. Right now, this means locating plastic accumulation areas around the world by satellite, ocean currents, sensors and so on. From here, we’ll develop new tools and frameworks. We’re also researching degradation – on both microbial and biochemical levels – because we need to know how we can best recycle this type of debris. The plastics that are too degraded to be recycled will be burned using pyrolysis to generate energy for our ship. The most exciting recent development however is the creation of our International Scientific Advisory Board. I was really surprised to see how willing other scientists have been to join our board. Many of them are already involved in various EU and UN commissions and have very tight agendas. But they all said ‘yes, we want to be a part of this’.”

These are all important and big plans. Where do you go from here?

“Our International Scientific Advisory Board aims to develop joint missions and share our findings via open data. We, at The SeaCleaners, must develop a roadmap to find out how we can complete our own missions, but we also want to become a platform for knowledge on plastic pollution. In time, we hope to organise regular webinars, even congresses. We want to break open the scientific community and share our results with the public at large at the same time. We want to translate the implications of our findings into language that everybody can understand. Our educational pillar aims to teach citizens best practices and extract real information for marketing this data.”

Aren’t there already similar initiatives? Are you not just reinventing the wheel?

“The big one of course is The Ocean Cleanup foundation, and there are lots of other companies developing systems to collect ocean debris. We are all working towards the same greater goal: a healthier planet. We are complementary to each other. Laurent Lebreton, The Ocean Cleanup’s head of research, has just recently agreed to join our International Scientific Advisory Board. This proves how important collaboration and partnerships that will amplify our actions are to all of us. Exchanging information and insights, sharing technology, is all part of this.”

Building a vessel like the Manta doesn’t come cheap. Where do you get your funding?

“Yvan Bourgnon, our founder, wasn’t sure if people would write the Manta off as a crazy idea. And so, three years ago he started a crowdfunding page. Its success proved that citizens really believe in our project and helped launch our organisation. Right now, 95% of our funding comes from private donations. We are of course seeking subsidies from Europe and France, our native country, but we are still a young organisation. Partnerships with organisations such as Spadel are invaluable to us. Not only do we receive funding, but we also get to share knowledge. It really is an exchange between partners: we offer training to employees in the company, and they bring us the corporate view on the global market and economy. Holding up the scientific and corporate views against each other challenges our technology and objectives.”

What can people do to help?

“We need to teach people to start thinking globally. Every action can have an impact, no matter how small. Lots of small actions by individual people can develop into something big. As consumers we have a lot of power and a big responsibility. Think about what you are buying, how is it packaged, can it be recycled… this global vision is important. It’s one of the major challenges for companies such as Spadel; it takes innovation and creativity to challenge people’s behaviour.”

With so much work still to be done, what gives you hope?

“My big hope lies with our youth; they have a different way of thinking and really care about the environment. We might not be able to leave them as clean a planet as we like, but they are making us think about our behaviour. It’s human nature for different generations to have conflicting views. We become stuck in our ways and need someone to show us a better way. Only the other day I was copying CD’s onto my hard drive so I could listen to music at work. My son just laughed at me. Why not go onto the internet? Everything is right there. Each generation has a different approach to problem-solving; we learn from the young, and they learn from us. I don’t know what kind of civilisation we will have 20 to 50 years from now, but it’s going to be very interesting. I became a grandfather just two weeks ago, so I am looking forward to seeing what this next generation will bring us!”

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