GoPro for a Cause Spotlight: Tackling the Trash Tsunami with The Ocean Cleanup

Jun 27, 2022


In 2018, GoPro for a Cause championed The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization with the objective of ridding the world’s oceans of plastic. GoPro was there for the launch of The Ocean Cleanup’s first ocean cleanup system, which was deployed from San Francisco Bay on a bold mission to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As of June 3, 2022, The Ocean Cleanup has removed more than 1.2M kg of trash from oceans and rivers worldwide.

And there’s much more work to be done. The Ocean Cleanup aims to tackle 1,000 of the world’s most polluting rivers in order to reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean.

The latest project is in Guatemala’s Rio Motagua basin, where an unnatural phenomenon occurs during each year’s rainy season. A “trash tsunami” propels enormous quantities of plastic into tributaries and rivers, and eventually into the Caribbean Sea. That’s up to 20M kg of plastic flowing into the Caribbean Sea—every year.

The situation on the Rio Motagua calls for innovative ideas and a specific solution for a specific problem. The Ocean Cleanup is working with local authorities in the region to improve waste management and to stop the trash tsunami with a new system: the Interceptor Trashfence, which they have named Interceptor 006. On May 26, 2022, the Trashfence was given its first real-world test during the first flash flood of the rainy season. 

The Ocean Cleanup crew members Florent Beauverd (Head of Creative and Documentary Productions) and Dan van der Kooy (Executive Producer of Documentary Content) take us behind the scenes to tell us more about this catastrophic yearly event, and what they’re doing to stop the flow of plastic into the sea.

GoPro: Tell us about the trash tsunami. What causes it?

The Ocean Cleanup: The Rio Motagua is the largest river in Guatemala, stretching from the highlands in the west down to the Caribbean Sea in the east. What makes the Rio Motagua situation unique is that an urban landfill sits literally on top of one of its tributaries, the Rio Las Vacas. Like many other rivers in the region, the Rio Motagua also suffers from unlicensed waste dumping. 

During the rainy season, these factors lead to exceptionally heavy flows of trash—a trash tsunami—flowing into the river every year, adding to the plastic pollution problem in the Caribbean Sea. We estimate that more than 20M kg of plastic flows through the Rio Motagua basin on an annual basis. This amounts to roughly 2% of the world’s overall plastic emissions to the oceans.

What is the Interceptor Trashfence?

The Interceptor Trashfence is an experimental system developed to address the specific nature of the pollution problem in the Rio Las Vacas. It's a custom-engineered steel screen measuring a massive 50 meters wide, 8 meters tall and spanning the entire river gorge developed over several years with technical partners and local authorities. In May 2022, we began our first trial of the Interceptor Trashfence on the Rio Las Vacas tributary in the Rio Motagua Basin.

The Interceptor Trashfence faced its first trash tsunami on May 26. Initially the fence held back the torrent of plastic, but ultimately gave way under the heavy force of so much trash. However, we learned a huge amount from this first trial, and we always knew this would be an experimental process. We’re going to optimize the design and deployment to improve the system and prevent these trash tsunamis reaching the oceans. For example, we’re considering raising the height of the fence and potentially installing more than one Interceptor Trashfence system on the Rio Las Vacas.

Why did you choose GoPro?

For this specific project in Guatemala, we needed to find a way to capture on video an extremely sudden (and unpredictable) flash flood that generates a trash tsunami. Although this location is particularly difficult to get to, we needed to record high-quality footage to show the urgency of this phenomenon to the world, and how we are trying to tackle it. We relied on GoPros for this project for three reasons: simplicity of use, high quality of footage and reliability in all weather conditions.

We’ve been using GoPros for a wide variety of applications over the years, from getting impossible creative shots allowing us to visualize and share our work in more compelling ways to using GoPros as a scientific tool for gathering data. GoPro cameras have become part of our toolkit for understanding the problem of plastic pollution and visualizing how we solve it.

What’s next for The Ocean Cleanup?

To rid the oceans of plastic, we need to clean up what is already out there and stop new plastic from entering the ocean—we need to close the tap. Working together with government leaders, individuals and private corporations, our goal is to tackle the 1,000 most polluting rivers all over the world.

More trash tsunamis will rush through the Rio Motagua throughout the rainy season. We’re working with local authorities in the region to improve waste management and we will continue to improve our Interceptor Trashfence system to stop the flow of plastic to the Caribbean Sea.

How can the GoPro Community help The Ocean Cleanup tackle this issue?

Supporters are welcome to learn about our Interceptor Trashfence project in Guatemala by reading this update. You can also track our worldwide impact in real time. And you can donate to The Ocean Cleanup here.

You can learn more about getting involved with GoPro for a Cause here.


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