For centuries, humans have used the ocean as well as fresh waterways as a sort of dumping ground for various types of pollution, like factory farm runoff, oil, and sewage. As a result, in the United States alone, half of all rivers are too polluted to support healthy aquatic life.  And that pollution oftentimes makes it back into our bodies in some way or another, usually by way of our food and water. Now, solar-powered river barges are turning the tide.
Solid refuse like plastics, glass, polystyrene, and other materials are also commonly dumped in rivers when no other options for proper disposal are available. These rivers eventually run to the seas where they collect in gyres. The NOAA defines gyres as a “large system of rotating ocean currents.” 
“Wind, tides, and differences in temperature and salinity drive ocean currents,” the NOAA writes on its website. “The ocean churns up different types of currents, such as eddies, whirlpools, or deep ocean currents. Larger, sustained currents—the Gulf Stream, for example—go by proper names. Taken together, these larger and more permanent currents make up the systems of currents known as gyres.”
There are five primary gyres on Earth. They are located in the North Pacific, South Pacific, the North Atlantic and South Atlantic, and one in the Indian ocean.
Being a point of confluence for multiple currents, these gyres are able to easily collect debris flowing in from rivers and other sources, forming massive “garbage islands“ in various parts of the ocean. The impact of our garbage reaching the sea is far-reaching. It’s estimated that our plastic pollution kills 1 million sea birds and 100,000 sea turtles and other marine mammals, like dolphins, whales and seals, every single year. 
Stopping this litter at its source is critical to preventing this harm to wildlife and the environment in which they live as well as protecting human lives impacted by this refuse. In 2018, research conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, concluded that “more than a quarter of all the world’s marine plastic waste may be pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight of them in Asia.”  One Asian nation, Malaysia, is now working to turn the tide, so to speak, on this horrible issue.
Enter: solar-powered river barges
On the Klang river near Kuala Lumpur, officials have deployed a solar-powered trash collection barge called The Interceptor, in an attempt to remove plastic, and other types of solid refuse, from the Klang River. Thesolar-powered river barge is a total of 78 feet long (24 meters) and looks a bit like a houseboat. The trash in the river is directed toward an opening in the barge where a conveyor belt collects it and stores it in a large dumpster inside of the solar-powered river barges.
The Interceptor is capable of removing 50 tons of refuse every day. The barge has been deployed on the Klang river since October.
The solar-powered river barges were developed by The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization located in the Netherlands. Ocean Cleanup has been working with Landasan Lumayan, a Malaysian government company, to clean the river since 2016. According to the Dutch organization, their work has been paying off.
“The Klang river was like a floating landfill,” said Syaiful Azmen Nordin, the managing director of Landasan Lumayan. “Boats could not pass through, and there was a lot of plastic. Now you can see the river is generally free from floating debris.”
According to Ocean Cleanup, 80% of plastic waste in the oceans originates from approximately 1,000 rivers globally.  The Klang river is responsible for 15,000 tons of plastic entering the ocean each year, making it one of the worst polluters in the world. The organization hopes that, following the successes of the river cleanup barge, these barges can be deployed in all of these polluting waterways.
“We know the goal of 1,000 rivers is ambitious, but it is a necessary one,” said Ocean Cleanup spokesperson Joost Dubois. The Interceptor costs approximately $775,000 USD to build, though Ocean Cleanup expects that the cost of producing these barges will likely drop over time. In total, they’ve built four Interceptor barges.
Interceptors are being sent to Thailand, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic to help clean up rivers in each of those countries.
In Malaysia, the trash removed from the Klang river is sent directly to the landfill. The barge has collected a wide array of refuse, from discarded teddy bears to tires. A new effort is being made to separate out recyclable items from the trash, helping to close the loop on some of the waste.
While the Interceptor barges are having a huge impact by themselves, reducing our use of plastics, particularly single-use plastic, is critical to turning the tide in this fight.
- “Half of All U.S. Rivers Are Too Polluted for Our Health.”The Atlantic. Dashiell Bennett. March 27, 2013.
- “What is a gyre?” Ocean Service
- “FACTS ABOUT MARINE LITTER.” Perseus
- “Asian plastic is choking the world’s oceans.” Nikkei Asia. Dominic Faulder. August 1, 2018.
- “RIVER PLASTIC EMISSIONS TO THE WORLD’S OCEANS.” The Ocean Clean Up