This is the Pristine Ocean podcast. I’m your host, Peter Hall. We talk to people about projects around the world, tackling the scourge of marine plastic litter.
Imagine you’re looking over a river covered with plastic refuse.
Plastic bottles, sachets, flip flops.
You might think that is unsightly. You might also think about the loss of quality of life for the people living near the river.
You might ask yourself, where is all this going and why doesn’t somebody do something about it?
This is where the story of plastic Fisher begins from a hotel looking out over the Mekong River. Karsten Hirsch decided to throw in his career as a lawyer and do something.
River clean-ups have become a central tool in the fight against ocean plastic. It is now thought that about 1000 rivers are responsible for 80% of the plastic flowing into the ocean. This is both a challenge but also an opportunity.
To catch the pollution before it did disperses into the wider environment.
Carsten told me that his personal connection to rivers comes from his passion for a range of water sports, including sailing and rowing. He and his partner founded Plastic Fischer to clean Up rivers.
Along the way, they developed a trash barrier that floats on the surface to concentrate the plastic waste.
Working directly on site, they developed the three L principle of local, low cost and low tech.
Karsten told me the story about how Plastic Fischer began.
I have a background in law and I studied law, graduated from law school. We saw the plastic waste in the in the Mekong River in Vietnam and then we decided why is no one tackling plastic in rivers but only the ocean clean up getting it out of the oceans and we were basically the first company to focus on rivers.
To stop plastic, prevent ocean plastic.
And so we decided to fund the company move to Indonesia. I moved to Indonesia with my friend Moritz and we tried out a couple of things.
First, the water wheel, but we figured out the water wheel is not working in a river with just very low flow speed. And then we worked together with the army.
In Indonesia and one of the most polluted rivers in the world, the term river and we saw that they were just randomly picking up the waste with Nets and Morrison, I thought.
Let’s design something like a swimming fence, a swimming barrier that just stops it around the clock so that the army can just go there and pick up all the waste that has accumulated there within the last hours.
They were not going out with the boat, so Moritz is actually the founder or the designer of the trash booms we developed a couple of.
Versions from it until we made it open source, so we deployed one in Bali. We deployed 1.
In in Bandung, we actually deployed a couple of barriers in Indonesia. We kicked off basically assumed I watch in Indonesia or I think also leveraged Pangea movement which are also using our open source designs and we are very proud of that because this design.
Was so easy and just, you know, motivated other companies to you know, continue using these trash rooms and we see them now.
Let’s say not all over the world. That sounds a bit too big, but it’s basically we were shared by the World Economic Forum because it’s such a simple solution and then we decided you know, how do we?
We enable people all around the world to make it as easy as possible to also take action, and This is why we then decided to put the construction plans and the the cutting plans. The blueprints online for free so that everyone can use them.
OK, that’s the whole story of.
Of plastic Fisher in two minutes, let’s unpack that a little bit. So you started out. You studied law and then you were working in a legal practise and then suddenly you stopped being a lawyer.
Uh, first of all, I was never a big fan of that studies and also not the work. It was a bit boring, but I also didn’t have like a a better.
Idea what to do?
I actually stopped already for a month and thought hey can I do something different? I didn’t figure out what I could do so I finished my last studies.
Yeah, and then you know, after finishing my studies we were on a vacation in Vietnam and saw that all the waste is going 24/7 downstream in the river and entering the ocean.
What did you actually see on that day in in Vietnam?
We had an apartment with a view on the Mekong River and 24/7. There was Styrofoam plastic bottles, bags, all the stuff that was thrown from the market into the river going down like passing by our apartment and entering the ocean which was like.
One kilometre away and we were thinking.
You know there seems to be the the source of the ocean plastic. It seems to be the rivers, and we did the research and no one was tackling plastic in rivers.
And then we decided, hey, there should be ways to stop that and my co-founder is working in the sustainable.
Aquacultures that means they are deal.
And with alternatives to seafood or improving seafood and he knew about the Alaskan Selman wheel that’s a water wheel that where salmons swim into the wheel, which is turning through the through the velocity of the river, and then they get thrown out on the riverbank, and that’s so effective.
That it’s forbidden and we were thinking that’s built that for plastic.
Being back in Germany, we rebuild it like two weeks after we. We came back for €300. We just built this first water wheel and it worked and that gave us the boost to come to say OK, we have something that’s pretty easy to build. Let’s make a company. I was really looking for.
Venture after spending seven years in the in the library, my friend Moritz took a break from his studies and we just said, OK, let’s go to Indonesia where the problem is and try if it works there as well.
So I’m just back in Germany, so you built this wheel sounds fast.
Setting and how did you test it?
We applied for permission from the from the here in Germany you have a lot of bureaucracy similar to Indonesia or India, so we had to apply for permission to test it out in a very small Creek.
Here in in Cologne, which is my hometown, and yeah, we, we just put it like we built it.
In a workshop and then we put it into this river and we had to throw a plastic bottle into the into the river because there is no plastic here. At least not that that much. And yeah, we figured out it’s actually collecting it and.
That’s how we did it.
OK, so you took the idea to.
Exactly we. We thought we were going to scale these waterwheels in Indonesia.
And we were super happy that we took the decision like to directly go to the country and test it out there.
There rather than developing everything here and then trying to transfer it, and I think this is a big.
Advantage maybe to others in the sector, because we actually testing out in the environment where it has to work and we figured out due to like in dry season it’s not going to work because the velocity is not enough. If you then have a lot of waste the wheel cannot turn.
So we rebuilt it in Jakarta in Indonesia 1st and we figured out it’s not going to work, at least not in dry season. And ah yeah, then we went to Bandung, where it’s like the Super polluted river cheetah room.
And why did you go to bundle? Because of the the the pollution concentration?
Exactly in in Jakarta, there were a couple of rivers, but they were actually not as polluted as we expected it to be.
And then we heard, OK, we can we get an introduction to the National Army that is in charge for cleaning this river? And let’s go there and see how.
So how how the situation looks there and then we found?
The the real polluted area of Indonesia.
OK, now this is where it gets really interesting. So how do you contact the Indonesian army and?
How did they react?
We were lucky that we had a very small network already in Indonesia through due to my or through my co-founder George who was working also a lot in Asia.
And then there was a diva friend of of his.
Uhm, who said, hey, I know the commander of the army for some reason that is working at the Cheetara McQueen the river.
Do you want to meet him and we said yes, uh, happy to do that. And yeah, I went there first on my on my own and met the the commander together with her and she.
She was translating and.
There were a lot of white guys coming to this place saying they will help us, but they actually only took a video or a picture and then they never came back and come.
We told him or I told him upfront, like yeah it’s going to be different this time because we will spend here like at least six months and try to really find a solution.
But that’s presumably what the other white guys said.
Yeah, but the the difference was we were actually then a week later we were moving to Bandung and showed up there every day for six months straight and working every day with them on solutions.
So you’d figured out that the Alaskan salmon wheel was not going to work in Indonesia. How did you get from that idea to the the trash booms that you’re working with today?
So we came to Bandung and met the army and they were taking us on a boat trip and said hey look guys we have this boat. We go there every day and pick up all the ways that we find in.
River, and that was approximately like one hour a day and Morris and I were thinking, hey OK, what about the other 23 hours?
You know the the Cheater River is divided in different sectors and it’s going from the source vector 0 until the end vector. I don’t know 30 and the idea is that every sector is responsible for their.
Yeah sector to clean it up and if it goes more downstream then the downstream sector has to clean the rest.
But we were seeing that a lot of waste is, you know, flowing downstream and we were not sure if the others would collect it. So we thought, yeah, how about making this barrier?
In the Sector 6 where we worked together with the Army and just make their job easier and more efficient by just letting them drive one time a day to the barrier and clean it up and.
Yeah, the question was how are we going to do that? What we was not working so we developed a yeah we were thinking of building a fence that swims and we were going through different workshops looking what’s what’s out there? What can we use to build a swimming fence and then we build?
Like five or six different types of trash booms that we then always implemented in this area and and you know, oversaw the performance and always got it out.
Recycled most of the material actually and build a new frame. Used the PVC floating floating elements until we had.
The system where we said OK, that’s stable, that’s easy to build.
Easy to replicate.
OK, let’s just do some. I don’t want to do an alpha of trash booms, but I mean there are a number of things there that really sort of pop into people’s minds when they pops into my mind when I hear the expression. And you’ve probably heard these questions all the time. What happens in the monsoon when you get really fast flows and lots of lots of trash?
If there are trees and cows hitting your system in the monsoon, there is a possibility to break what we’re doing at plastic fish as we design emergency release mechanisms where after at some pressure the system opens, or you know very important is to to empty the system regularly to prevent overloading.
Yeah, but so far we didn’t lose one element.
And what about when you come into conflict with local river traffic?
We figure out the strategically best.
Best place to deploy system and then we only cover a fourth or a fifth of the river, so we anchor it in the middle of the river and the 11 set we attach it on the riverbank and then the waste is is is guided to the to the shore and from this from these systems you can set up a couple of of them downstream.
So yeah, that you don’t that you allow boats to pass.
How would you say that the the trash brooms changed the perception of the people living nearby when they see all this trash concentrated at one point?
Yeah, that was exactly another benefit that we figured out pretty quickly that we can also do somehow passively and awareness raising with that, because it shows how much waste is going down the river and it’s visible. That’s one big difference to the ocean cleanup. They have their huge system and something is happening there.
But no one knows and no one cares because no one can see.
But our systems, they they visualise the problem within the Community where we are working and.
We’re putting up a couple of systems. We employ the local community. They will talk to the family. They will talk to their friends. Everyone will see the problem. We also have somehow an awareness raising within.
Within the operations.
Or one can say that you know catching plastic in the ocean is too late.
But is catching it in the river already too late?
I think this is a super fair question and you’re absolutely right and we are aware of it. Yeah, we’re fighting symptoms here.
We’re not solving any problems. We have somehow awareness raising with that, yeah, but it’s not our focus, but there is an urgency to act. You know there is. There needs to be.
Awareness raising. There needs to be education. There needs to be set up, uh?
Waste management change of legislation. Extended producer responsibility. All that stuff needs to happen, but until this happens there is plastic leaking into the oceans and we will be there and that’s what we can do as a small start-up stopping plastic there. I cannot change Coca Cola from producing plastic bottles, I cannot change the the government of whoever country, whichever country it is to to you know, put a higher tax on plastics. That’s not what I can achieve realistically.
As a startup, what I can do is setting up low-cost technologies and finance my operations somehow and and stop this plastic that is already into the rivers and then we collaborate with partners.
Who are tackling the other problems?
OK, let’s talk about funding.
How does it? How do you pay for it? All you’ve got your, you’ve got your operational costs. You’ve got your own costs. You’ve got your expansion costs.
Yeah, how do you? How do?
You pay for it.
So, we were self-funded for the first one and half years we won a few grants. We got a little bit of investor money that carried us so far.
Uhm, but we realised pretty quickly that we don’t have enough PT bottles to sell so that we could have a profitable.
Business model from operating. We are a for profit company so we are a social enterprise, but we are not.
We are not looking for donations. We want to offer a service that provides benefits for the environment and that the companies are willing to pay for. Because if we can provide a service that works.
We can actually scale if companies are willing.
To pay for it.
And and this is good because we do not need to spend 40% of our revenue on donation or marketing budgets.
This is why we are not competing with most of the companies because we are providing a service and not all looking for donations.
Uhm, and we were thinking already in 2019 that we could do something similar to carbon offsetting to carbon.
Edits by creating plastic credits, but it was like too wild in this time when we as two people on the ground or three people, we could not imagine how this could work.
Now there is a system established and we know for example, the Pangaea movement is doing a token. We have plastic credits popping up all over the world.
And what we are doing is we ask companies to pay for our or finance our operations per tonne of plastic collected and processed.
And companies can come to us and say, hey, plastic Fisher, can you collect 20 tonnes and proof that you collected and processed that for us?
You say yes, no problem. They pay us money. Usually, it’s less than €1.00 per kilogramme and and then we provide the end to end service of setting up technology.
Collecting it and sorting it on daily basis and making sure it’s not ending up in the environment again. And these companies can then show their customers, employees, shareholders we’re caring about the environment we were financing, collection operations that otherwise could not be financed.
Uhm, or we have the plastic Fisher Club where companies, usually small ones, not the Coca Cola can pay us a monthly fee and support our overall operations.
In return they get a logo, and they can brand this logo on their products or on their websites and say hey we are not the only for profit company. We actually also support Plastic Fischer clean rivers and clean oceans.
Some companies don’t have any plastic footprint, but they just say “hey we have all polluted. We all swim in polluted oceans. Let someone has to do something and then they can support”.
Karsten, that is a fantastic story. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Thank you for your time.
We really wish all the best for the future. Maybe we can talk again in six months and find out more about how plastic fish is going.
Would be a pleasure. Thanks Peter for having me and yeah, looking forward to chat again.
That was Karsten Hirsch from Plastic Fischer. If you want to know more about Plastic Fischer check out the show notes.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for listening to the Pristine Ocean Podcast, the podcast that talks to people about projects around the world tackling the scourge of marine plastic litter.