Ocean plastics: from riverine waste to wealth

Published on 2022-05-13

Startup Story

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Fabio Dalmonte, CEO at Sea Defense Solutions, explains how their startup collects river waste to turn ocean plastic into wealth.


SEADS stands for "Sea Defense Solutions" and this is self-explanatory: we want to save the oceans from the plastic before they enter the ocean. So our system starts at the beginning of the problem, in the rivers, because they are the main source of transportation of plastic into the ocean.

The project started five years ago during a scientific study in collaboration with a university in the west of Scotland and a university in Jakarta, Indonesia. I've started studying the waste management of the city and the pollution of the river, so I had the chance to see for the first time how polluted the rivers are and how much waste is going into the ocean. 

From there I started thinking about a solution that should have been as simple as possible because in developing countries resources are limited, so it's very essential that it is something very simple to replicate, install and maintain.

SEAD's different solutions

In the past, there have been attempts to stop plastic in the rivers and now, fortunately, this new solution has been increasing, but the problem is that there are no solutions specific to how the plastic behaves in the river.

Plastic is mostly floating, but in reality, the majority sinks 50 centimetres into the water: you need something that is not just superficial but also goes deep into the water below the surface, below the 50 centimetres. 
That's why we developed the blue barriers. It is a quite strong system that goes deeper into the river level up to 80 to 90 centimetres in order to catch all the plastic transported. It was created strong and resistant because the majority of the plastic is transported during the heavy rains, so like normal flooding conditions.

Other systems are built lighter thus they are not able to resist the stronger current: they are not efficient in this condition. 

Our solution does not impact either the entire river flow or the fauna and flora. This has always been our goal.
And also, very important, doesn't impact river navigation. In fact, it is important that the navigation, even for bigger boats, is not affected if we want to install something that can be a permanent solution. 

On top of these, we aim also not to just collect the plastic, but also to give consultancy solutions for managing the plastic collected. Once the plastic is stopped from our barriers, there are different solutions for being collected and transported on the shore from the manual to the automatic one. 

With our collaborations and also from our experience, we can suggest to the local administration how to deal with the waste collected and produce value out of that, in order to cover the cost of maintenance, create local jobs and create value for the local communities. 

Municipalities can be our clients or can be anyway the final decision-maker. I make this difference because there are many product companies that are interested in giving their contribution to solving this problem. Sometimes they economically support the project and then the local administration is the final decision maker that has to give permission for the installation.

Circular economy in rivers: plastic waste valorisation process

We are trying to develop a portfolio of possible solutions in order to apply the best solution for the specific situation.

It has recently developed a quite different solution for recycling plastic, which is still a challenge. We are continuously exploring new solutions as long as they get to the point to be industrially applicable.

For example, the majority of the material collected in the rivers is food and mixed waste. A possible solution that we recently tested with the University of Modena e Reggio Emilia in Italy, and the University of Bologna, is using gasification for the wood: a process in which the wood is heated in order to create a gas and then the gas is burned instead of living wood. Is a kind of a cleaner way to produce energy out of the wood.

And this gives the possibility to create energy, sell the energy or directly consume the energy. For example, in a local building of public administration, we can produce pallets to be sold for heating systems and this can create a value and revenue that can cover costs of the management of the other materials, such as plastic and mixed materials.

Plastic can be recycled and the technology that we tested is pyrolysis: we have done an experiment with the University of Bologna where they tested the plastic collected from the river to see if it was processable with the pyrolysis, as the normal mixed plastic collected from the local collection. The results are positive, and so is a technology that could be used and bring value to recycling.

Another option is moulding the plastic and creating benches, for example, or other kinds of instruments that can be used in many ways in the cities or by clients.

Blue barriers: a practical case 

Last year in June we installed our barriers in Rome: it was an event of three days. Despite the time it was limited, we collected quite a lot of material. For example, we gathered a meter cube of plastic which is from one side, good news for the barriers because we demonstrated that they worked well, on the other side is bad news, of course, because it demonstrates that the river is very polluted.

On top of those meter cubes of plastic, we collect quite a lot of food and also organic materials such as riverine weeds. The interesting thing is that this riverine weed actually works as a kind of net for the microplastic. Thanks to that we demonstrated that our barriers don't stop just macroplastic, but also quite a very relevant quantity of microplastic.

The different stakeholders of a startup focused on plastic waste management 

We collaborated with the universities for testing and experimenting, but for the more practical part, we cooperated with the private sector and companies.
That allows us the possibility to use their e-commerce focused in business to business relations, where already plastic is sold as a raw material.

Thanks to this bond, will enable the local administration to sell the plastic collected from the river for a premium price. It will be a premium price because the buyer recognized that our plastic has a higher value because of its history: it was collected before it reached and polluted the ocean.

So in buying those plastics, they're also contributing to stopping plastic pollution. 

The reaction of public administrations to the new technology of SEADS

The response from the public administrations has been quite positive, they have recognized that the barriers are working as expected.

Also, important feedback regards the management of waste.
In developing countries, it is fundamental, not just to give a solution for stopping the plastic in the river, but also to give a way to manage the waste collected. 

Very often the questions from the local administration were "okay, we have a system for collecting a lot of plastic efficiently, but do you have a solution for managing this amount of waste?". 

This is why after this feedback we concentrated a lot on finding a better solution, different solutions to be applied in order to respond to this question and give alternatives for the valorisation of what is collected.

The main challenge for startups: the slowness of public administration

Looking for funding hasn't always been easy: there is quite a relevant competition in the green sector, which is actually good news because it means that a lot of solutions are rising. 

But actually, one of the main obstacles to the slow down of the implementation of the project has been the slow pace of the public administration in accepting new solutions.

This case is still particularly challenging because it is also a new problem, or better, a newly recognized problem: it is something that public administration realizes to have and that they need to tackle, and then there, they have to switch to looking for the solution and adopting it. 

In general, the public administrations are not fast in doing so but in particular, in this case, they are taking quite a long time. 

So, this is an obstacle that we are facing, but actually, all the projects similar to us, that have our same aim, are facing the same with the bigger organizations.

Cross-country differences in ocean plastic waste management.  

We had the chance to discuss with the local administration that was more interested in applying this solution and others that were less sensitive to the problem. 

Developing countries are aware of the problem and they want to apply solutions but they are still struggling to implement the solution rather than more developed countries. 

I will say that this is also a problem of relationships with a solution that comes from other countries and that usually are applied in developing countries.

It needs just some more time to get more users inclined toward this kind of solution in order to become more normal and easy to be applied. Then they will be able to raise the awareness and also the willingness to apply them more quickly.

The future project of SEADS

We have a rich pipeline with the project at different levels. 
The next project that will be installed is going to be again in Rome for a project of 12 months and it will reach the final stage in a short term.

We are discussing with the local administration also in the north of Italy, we tested the first prototype in Lamone river, in Ravenna province. The expected installation could be in the first part of next year.

Also near Naples, we have another installation going on with the same timeline. 

We have other discussions in Europe, especially in France, but also in the Philippines and Costa Rica.

Before the COVID actually, we had some more discussions open, for example in Indonesia and in Brazil but since then the process has been slowed down from the difficult situation. 

Just now we are starting again at the discussion with the local administration.

About the author

Fabio Dalmonte

Founder and MD at SEADS-Sea Defence Solutions Ltd