Softdrinks, tampons or tissues in your pocket for runny noses in winter – they all have one thing in common: their packaging made of standard plastic. This synthetic material is multifaceted and therefore used in many ways: as packaging, carrying bags, containers and many more, but for most consumers it loses its worth right after using.

Consequences are fatal. Most of the plastic garbage is not disposed of adequately and ends up in our ocean. This has been happening for many years, so many thousands of tons of plastic waste are floating around in the sea.

For Europeans this scenario may sound like a dystopia, but it has already become tough reality in many parts of Asia, Africa and South America. According to environmental organisations, the plastic waste in the ocean is estimated to be about 150 million tons. And about ten million tons are added each year.

Plastic refuse does not only represent the waste of resources and the consumption of millions of tons of oil; it has a big influence on the natural habitat in the sea. Many sea dwellers are displaced, many hurt themselves or even perish due to the floating plastic parts. Through seafood dishes, tiny parts of plastic end up in our stomach, too, and eating synthetics can cause cancer, Stephan Lutter, WWF marine expert says.

BONINS “SEA COW” IS TO CHANGE THE WORLD

The current pollution problem has been known for a while now but for many it seems too big to find the courage to tackle it. Which isn’t true for environmental activist Günther Bonin, for whom the cleaning up of our oceans has become a matter of the heart.

The 59-old from Munich, Germany, could say that his dedication began in 2008. When sailing, he spotted blankets of plastic waste. He started looking into the subject and vowed to take action. In 2011 he founded the environmental organisation One Earth – One Ocean, which is committed to finding a solution.

Bonin decides he wants to clean the sea. First, he builds a small boat he calls “sea hamster” and only years later he receives sufficient support to take his project a step further. With the help of engineer Dirk Lindenau, Lübeck shipyard and especially cosmetic corporation CD a catamaran called “sea cow” is launched. The boat is equipped with a net, and so, even though it’s pretty small, the 250,000 Euro worth catamaran can collect up to two tons of refuse in one tour – a considerable amount.

The net, that was specially made for this purpose, is attached between the two hulls that are twelve metres long. It reaches down into the sea for three to four metres. Therefore as yet, the “see cow” can only be applied in coastal watersBecause of the net’s relatively big meshes and holes on the sides fish can swim through it but dense plastic blankets are safely retained.

The catamaran moves with a speed of 4km/h, it is powered by solar energy. At the beginning of next year it is expected to clean Hongkong harbour.

“YOU HAVE TO START AT SOME POINT, HUH?”

Even though the idea seems promising, people remain sceptical. The problem of plastic waste in the sea surely is too big to be solved by a little boat that wants to save the world, that’s what Bonin gets to hear a lot. In his regional dialect he counters, “You have to start at some point, huh?” – When he’s right, he’s right.

Out of every ton of plastic waste that Bonin trawls out of the sea, 800 litres of oil can be produced. Furthermore, his initiative creates new jobs in harbours and for local fishermen. He kills two birds with one stone: The coordinates of the huge amounts of garbage are traced by existing satellite data, then either Bonin and his team or local fishermen get the refuse and dispose of it appropriately. All fishermen receive a lump sum.

Bonins latest idea is the “sea elephant”. With this ship all the steps to win oil from plastic should be possible on board. This idea could make prices for fuel oil drop rapidly, Bonin is convinced, but he only plans to realise this project in five years’ time and until then he surely has enough work to do.

For his commitment Bonin has already won several awards and honours. In 2013, he and his team received the German Green Tec Award. The idea convinced the 50 members of the jury and won against almost 300 other ideas submitted in eight different categories.