boot.de: Hello Marcella, we are happy that you take the time to tell us more about Pacific Garbage Screening. How did the Pacific Garbage Screening project come about? How did you come up with the concrete idea for the platforms in the sea?
Marcella Hansch: Well, the idea wasn't just there at some point, it developed over time. I was on vacation, wanted to switch off completely and I was thinking about a topic for my master thesis. That was in 2013. And then I went diving. Actually, I am a little afraid of fish. But then, while diving, I realized that it's not the fish that are so bad, but all the plastic in the sea.
I probably wouldn't have noticed it because we are so used to all the plastic waste everywhere that we don't even notice it anymore. But I read an article earlier on the plane describing this problem. I was a little sensitized to it. Especially when diving, so I couldn't close my eyes to it anymore. That shocked me so much that I started doing more research on the subject. Yeah, and I decided I had to do something. And then somehow one thing led to another.
Your professors were at once enthusiastic about the topic when you came up with the proposal for your thesis?
Well, sort of. (Laughs) I asked if it was absolutely necessary for the thesis to be architecture on land or if I could also do something on the water. The institute gave its ok, it only had to be well researched and not just look nice. They wanted something that could really work. My original idea was to build a small boat with a net underneath, in which the plastic is fished up. That wouldn't have worked, of course.
I really started my research there from scratch: how did the oceans actually develop? How are plastics made? What is the production process? What is our consumer behaviour? Why do plastics get into the sea at all? I've visited recycling plants, read manuscripts from mechanical engineers. Really everything across the board. It really made me realize how huge this problem is.
Then came the idea of how to purify water. Usually that's what sewage plants do. I have started to analyse sewage treatment plants: How do they work? How are they constructed?
What does architecture have to do with collecting plastic at sea?
Oh, quite a bit, even if these are things you don't see as directly in the project today. I have really planned the structure of the platforms architecturally, with cross-sections, construction principle and how the whole thing can lie on the water structurally, what the buoyancy body must look like. There are quite a few architectural aspects to it. Above all, the form. I didn't come up with it just like that, but rather there are real current analyses involved: "Form follows function", what does it have to look like in order for it to work properly? In principle, every bend has its purpose. There's a lot of architecture in it, but afterwards, of course, the focus of the project was a completely different one. This has become much more interdisciplinary than I ever imagined. In the end, it has become a slightly larger project. (Laughs)
How and when did you decide not to leave it at that but to make more of it?
The decision was taken step by step. More or less by chance, there was an article in the local press about the basic idea of my thesis. This attracted attention. Following that, a couple of companies approached me as they thought it was interesting. I was invited to present my idea at a trade fair in Munich. Just as an idea beyond the edge of your own plate, without any deeper thoughts at this stage to make it become real.
In Munich I also spoke to experts from the field of hydrodynamics for the first time. And they said: "Hey, wow, that's not unrealistic. Follow that up." Yes, and then I stood there and thought: "All alone as an architect, I can't even calculate that, my expertise is never enough for that."
About a year later, in 2015, I knocked at the door of the Institute of Hydraulic Engineering here in Aachen and said that I had an idea based on current analyses, but I was not able to calculate currents. If they could help? Together we took it a little further. That's when it all started. Then, again, two final theses of students followed, who calculated this. A good year later, at the beginning of 2017, we founded the association and since then it actually pretty much took off. (laughs)
How many people are part of it now? And how should we envisage your work?
There are almost 40 people on the team now. But I don't think we've ever met all at the same table until now. But all of this is voluntary and people are involved to varying degrees. However, we have four teams: the research team, the construction team, the organisation team and the marketing team. The largest teams are research and construction. But nobody gets bored here! (laughs)
You're all doing this on a voluntary basis. Do you all have enough time to make a living on the side?
(Laughs) Yes, well, we have to, don't we? That's why we have to talk on the phone so early today, because I have to go straight to the office afterwards. We all work, of course, and that's really difficult. It's difficult for me too, because I sit in the office 40 hours a week and then do it in the evenings, at night or at the weekend. Every night and every weekend. That's pretty intense, actually.
But you've started collecting money for it now?
Exactly. Simply because we realized that we cannot move this forward without money. With private donations we can print a few flyers and the construction team maybe can go shopping to the DIY, but that's really it. And that's not enough, of course. That is why we have now done this crowdfunding with the ambitious goal of collecting €200,000. We have done that and now we have a nice starting capital. And then the goal is that we use it to create capacity. Everything stands or falls with this, really.
And when are you going to build the first platform?
Well, tomorrow, of course! (laughs) Nah, seriously, that depends a bit on how it works out with follow-up financing. Our plan is that with this start-up funding, as we see those €200,000, we will generate additional funds over the next six months so that this thing really gets going. This will be followed by a three-year plan in which a feasibility study is being considered.
We want to start with smaller prototypes that are used in rivers and estuaries. And then upscaling this step-by-step. Our goal is to have the first model tests and prototypes running on rivers in five years. That's what I'd like to see.
What is your vision for the whole Pacific Garbage Screening project? Where do you see the project, if you allow yourself to dream?
Well, the vision is already grand. If all this works, then we want to do it worldwide and, above all, to realize the platforms in the ocean. But at the same time we want to create awareness of the whoöle issue. This is the second focus besides technology development: to draw attention to the topic and to curb plastic consumption.
What we need to do is to form a huge network to highlight the issue worldwide. We have pretty big plans already! A lot is being created right now, and we now have to explore where we can inspire as many people as possible for the topic. We don't just want them to support our project, we want many of them to start with themselves and achieve a big, overarching goal and at some point realize this vision.
Did you have a special relationship to the water, the seas, the oceans before the whole project?
Well, yes, I guess so. We went to the sea in Holland every summer when we were kids. And for me, the sea has always been the only place where I could really relax and unwind. The older I got, the more watersports came in to it all, diving and stuff like that. Once I'm at the sea, I'm always kind of fine. If you then see that this place is no longer doing well, then that hurts.
How do you see watersports in all this? Especially considering how we go about using the sea for watersports?
As a general rule, watersports enthusiasts have an extremely high level of environmental awareness. I know a lot of diving schools and surfing schools that are always collecting rubbish on the beach simultaneously, that are incredibly committed to it, that have this real awareness because they see it right under their noses. Especially divers and surfers, what stories they tell you, where they have discovered garbage everywhere, that is really frightening. Therefore, for me, watersports have a relatively high significance in this topic.
Do you have perhaps two or three concrete tips for watersports enthusiasts on how they can make their own contact with the sea more sustainable, how they can pay attention to it?
The most important thing is simply to avoid plastic by all means. That may sound trite, but it is really true that we in Germany have the highest plastic consumption in the world. Our plastic consumption is extreme. You only have to look at the yellow plastic garbage bags, how they pile up at the end of the week. Anyone can really start from there, of course. Although everyone should be aware of it, the topic has simply not yet reached the minds.
Recently I gave a lecture in a sailing club, where one should think that the topic should be present with sailors. They argued that we here in Germany recycle everything, that we have nothing to do with it. That's just not true. Much of what we put in the yellow bag out on the road is gone for us, but most of it ends up in dumps in Asia. They're on the coast or by the river. That's how it ends up in the sea, after all.
A lot more has to happen. The consumer really has an extreme power if we change our consumption. Many people are not even aware of this. If everyone in the supermarket does without plastic as best as they can and buys alternative products that are not wrapped in plastic, then this whole supply and demand thing would change completely. If the items are no longer purchased, they will no longer be offered. But as long as we buy it, it'll show up in the supermarkets. This is just the most important point to realize, where I would wish that this awareness changes in everyday life.
Have you ever been to the boot in Düsseldorf?
Yes, actually just this year! I went and gave a very short mini-lecture at the German Ocean Foundation at the love your ocean activity area. Only ten minutes unfortunately, but the plan is that I'll be back in January!
We are looking forward to it! Thank you for the interview and good luck with the project!