Meet the Interceptor, a garbage collection vessel helping to clean up Malaysia’s Klang River
To mark Earth Day, CNA examines the issue of plastic waste in waterways and how a boat is complementing the Selangor government’s efforts to rejuvenate a major river.
KLANG: Mounds of plastic bottles, styrofoam boxes, plastic cups, tin cans, wood and even a broom.
They are among the waste that has been picked up by the Interceptor 005, a garbage collection vessel plying the Klang River in Malaysia. The aim is to prevent plastic waste from entering the straits of Malacca and eventually the ocean.
Based on a catamaran design, the vessel sponsored by the rock band Coldplay has been operating near Port Klang since December last year.
The Interceptor is a 100 per cent solar-powered machine that was designed by The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch based non-profit organisation that seeks to develop and scale technologies to get rid of plastic in the oceans.
The 005 is one of two Interceptors operating in the Klang River, which has the unwanted title of being one of the 50 most polluted rivers in the world.
According to a study published on Science.org in April last year, the Klang River is the fourth highest emitter of plastics to oceans.
The Pasig and Tullhan rivers in the Philippines take up the top two spots, while India’s Ulhas River comes in third.
The CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, Boyan Slat said that according to the study, 1,000 rivers in the world account for nearly 80 per cent of global annual riverine plastic emissions.
The remaining 20 per cent of plastic emissions are distributed over 30,000 rivers, he added.
“If we want to be successful in cleaning the ocean, we must do two things. Clean the legacy, whatever is there already and stop more from going into the ocean. If you do just one of those, you won’t get a clean ocean,” Mr Slat told CNA in an interview.
There are now eight Interceptor vessels deployed around the world.
Besides the two in Malaysia, there are three in Jamaica, one in Indonesia, one in Vietnam, and another in the Dominican Republic.
The first vessel deployed in Malaysia back in Nov 2019 - the Interceptor 002 - is out of service due to the floods that wreaked havoc in several parts of Malaysia including Selangor last year. But Mr Slat was hopeful that it should be up and running again soon.
The Interceptors are placed in strategic locations in rivers to make sure the main plastic flow is intercepted while allowing for boats to pass.
Guided by the natural current of the river, the waste including plastic moves onto a conveyor belt before ending up in dumpsters.
On paper, the Interceptor is capable of extracting 50,000kg to 100,000kg of trash per day.
The two Interceptors in the Klang River are located about 20km apart.
Mr Slat said the newer redesigned machine is faster and cheaper to build. It also performs better and has a bigger capacity.
“Ideally, we want these projects to be funded and operated by Malaysians for it to be a success. We are just here to help,” he said.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, with plastic making up 80 per cent of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.
It said that under the influence of solar UV radiation, wind, currents and other natural factors, plastic breaks down into small particles called microplastics or nanoplastics. Their small size means that it is easy for marine life to ingest them accidentally.
ASSISTING STATE GOVERNMENT CLEANUP EFFORTS
The deployment of the Interceptors is part of the Selangor Maritime Gateway (SMG) initiative by the Selangor state government that embarked on a Klang River rejuvenation project. This project is an extension of the billion-dollar River of Life project in Kuala Lumpur.
The 120km-long Klang River cuts across major cities in the Klang Valley such as Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Subang Jaya, Shah Alam and Klang.
The SMG initiative is undertaken by Landasan Lumayan Sdn Bhd (LLSB), a corporation mandated by the Selangor state government to clean and rejuvenate 56km of the river - from the border of Kuala Lumpur to the river mouth at Port Klang.
“We wanted to start economic activities along the Klang River such as eco-tourism and property development. We also wanted the river to become one of the contributors to the water supply scheme in Selangor,” LLSB’s managing director Syaiful Azmen Nordin told CNA in an interview.
The company has installed log booms at seven locations along the river, which are designed to collect, intercept, and contain floating debris such as domestic waste and logs.
The designs of these log booms are based on hydraulic studies and cater to the low and high tides of Klang River.
Contractors are also hired to manually remove the waste from the rivers.
The deployment of the Interceptors complements these measures, and they are the last line of defence to block plastics from going into the ocean, said Mr Syaiful Azmen.
He said that efforts to clean up the river have borne some fruit.
In 2016, a total of 16,408 metric tonnes of rubbish was collected. This was down 38 per cent to 10,244 metric tonnes of waste collected last year.
From 2016 to 2021, a total of 77,419 metric tonnes of waste was collected from the river.
The two interceptors have collected about 845 metric tonnes of waste since they were deployed.
Organic waste collected makes up 49 per cent of the waste, while inorganic waste makes up 51 per cent.
About 80 per cent of the inorganic waste comprises plastics, said Mr Syaiful Azmen.
“Previously boats could not travel (along) the Klang River as plastic waste would get stuck in their propellers. Or even if they did, they would have to go slowly, and it could take two hours for a 20km journey.
“Nowadays, it takes about 30 minutes,” he said, showing pictures of huge piles of rubbish in the Klang River before they embarked on measures to clean up the river.
He said that the waste collected is brought to landfills for disposal, adding that plastics are unable to be recycled as they are too dirty.
In 2016, the Water Quality Index (WQI) in the Klang River was classified as class five, or considered to be highly contaminated most of the time.
Last year, the WQI was class three, which means moderately good or better in 48 per cent of days in the year.
Mr Syaiful Azmen said that they are targeting to achieve 70 per cent of class three WQI days in a year.
“Our main task is to ensure raw water is consistently good quality to save costs of operations for the water treatment plant,” he noted.
Once the Sungai Rasau water treatment plant is completed, it will draw raw water for treatment from the Klang River.
Mr Syaiful Azmen hoped that the waste problem in the Klang River can be solved by 2030.
“It is not a sustainable business. We are spending money and using effort to clean up our own mess. This money and effort should be diverted to more useful activities rather than to collect waste,” he said.
Moving forward, Mr Syaiful Azmen said that the Selangor government would be coming up with enactments and laws as a deterrent against river pollution, including dealing with the discharge of effluents into the river.
They will also be embarking on river dredging works to enhance the capacity of the river, which has been affected by siltation over the years, said Mr Syaiful Azmen.
Mr Serjeet Singh, 66, a resident of Taman Melawis in Klang said there has been a considerable reduction in the floating debris that is found in the Klang River these days.
Taman Melawis is located about 0.5km from the Klang River.
“If you take a walk around the river bank, there is definitely some difference in the sense that the river looks much cleaner these days. There are fewer plastic bottles or polystyrene boxes that can be seen compared to before.
“However there is still no change in the colour of the water. If it is really clean, the colour of the water should change,” said the retiree who used to work as a technical manager in a water supply company.
He said that during the strict COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 when factories were not allowed to operate, the water colour was green.
“It is now back to brown colour. This shows that human activities are responsible for the cleanliness of the water,” Mr Singh said.
Water quality expert Zaki Zainuddin said that the logbooms and the Interceptors initiatives have helped in terms of reducing the floating debris and improving the water quality, although it still wasn’t particularly clean.
The independent researcher opined that it was more important to control the pollution at its source.
“How long do you want the Interceptor and logbooms there? They can’t be there until the end of time. More importantly, control the dumping of this kind of garbage at the source.
“That is through awareness and education. Prevention is better than cure. Look at countries like Japan. There are no floatables and garbage in the rivers because people don’t throw them in the rivers. That comes with societal development and maturity,” Dr Zaki said.
DEPLOYING MORE INTERCEPTORS WORLDWIDE
Mr Slat of The Ocean Cleanup said that his organisation is aiming to tackle the 1,000 most polluting rivers within five years, after operations are scaled up.
He said they are planning on increasing the number of interceptors by this year, with planned deployments in Thailand and America, among other places.
“There are so many different things we can do to stop it (plastic) from going into the oceans and all these things can be complementary. But intercepting it in rivers is the fastest and cheapest way of getting it done,” said Mr Slat who got the inspiration to clean up the oceans in 2011 after a scuba diving trip in Greece where he saw more plastic bags than fish.
According to The Ocean Cleanup’s website, the Interceptors have collected about 1.25 million kg of trash since being deployed all over the world.
The Ocean Cleanup has also embarked on a large-scale clean up of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a collection of marine debris located between Hawaii and California.
Mr Slat claimed that they have picked up 60,000kg of plastic waste in half a year in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with a prototype system.
He believes that a year from now, they would be able to operate their first full-scale system there and ten of the vessels would be able to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by the end of the decade.
“It is quite an operation, but if we have ten systems, it is doable,” he said.
He said the garbage from the pacific is transported to Canada, where there is a whole supply chain for the material to be recycled and then sold to companies.
Mr Slat noted that there was higher consumption of plastics in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany. However, the plastic going into the ocean from the Klang River was much more than the Rhine, one of the biggest rivers in Europe.
He said that according to the Science.org study, Klang River emits about 15,000 tonnes of plastic annually while the Rhine emits about 300 tonnes.
“It goes to show that it is not really about plastic consumption but really about collecting and properly managing it so that plastic does not end up in the environment. That is really the key thing,” he said.
He said if they ultimately wanted to put themselves out of business, plastics had to stop going into the Interceptors.
“With the Interceptors alone you can solve the ocean problem but at some point, you also ideally, you don’t want to get it (plastics) into the rivers too. You want clean rivers too ... In that sense you do need a combination of mindset and legislation,” he added.