5 minutes with... Yvan Bourgnon, founder of The SeaCleaners
When it comes to cleaning seas, there are few people who beat us to it than Yvan Bourgnon.
A talented Franco-Swiss sailor, Yvan started sailing at the age of eight, traversing the world with his parents on a voyage that hooked him forever and instilled in him an insurmountable passion for our seas.
In the second of our '5 minute' series, we speak with Yvan; talented sailor and founder of The SeaCleaners.
When did you first start sailing, Yvan, and why did you never leave?
Since childhood, I have loved the sea. I was very lucky when I was 8-years old because my parents took us, with my brother, for a four-year sailing around the world. These are among the most beautiful moments of my life, that's why I've never left the sea. I am a professional skipper and will always be on the sea.
Tell us about your organisation TheSeaCleaners, what is your vision? Why has plastic pollution, in particular, been the focus of your efforts?
Before launching The SeaCleaners, during several trans-Atlantic competitions, I often collided with containers or unidentified floating objects (UFOs). Once I was forced to abandon the Transat Jacques Vabre because my sailboat struck an UFO in the Bay of Gascogne.
So, when I came back from my solo round-the-world trip from 2013 to 2015, on an uninhabitable catamaran, I decided to take action. Throughout my journey, paradisiacal places I had seen with my parents had turned into open-air garbage dumps like in some places in the Maldives. I was caught many times in plastic tablecloths, trying at all costs to untangle my boat from plastic waste of all sizes. It was a real shock. So I created The SeaCleaners in 2016 to combat marine plastic pollution, at sea and on land, through corrective and preventive missions.
At sea, The SeaCleaners, with the Manta boat, will collect dense areas of macro-plastic pollution before it sinks or disintegrates into microplastics. We will also host international scientific missions to contribute to scientific research. Results and data on the quantification, characterisation or localisation of plastic waste slicks, collected by our on-board scientific team, will be available in an open data platform.
On Earth, for years now, we've been raising awareness and educating the general public in an effort to reduce the problem, in schools, universities and companies. We engage teams of volunteers to carry out pollution clean-up operations on beaches or along rivers, too.
You are developing a prototype for a new boat, the Manta. Why is it special and how is it powered?
It’s more than a prototype! We are building this ship and this is world first: the Manta will be the only workboat capable of managing 100% of the plastic waste collected at sea thanks to its onboard factory. It will be sorted manually, treated and recovered using a pyrolysis energy conversion unit capable of converting all the plastic collected into energy, with a minimal environmental footprint. The pyrolysis process was selected because everything collected and processed on-board will be converted into a useful component. The solid carbon residues which represent 5 to 10% of the treated plastic, will be stored and distributed to recycling management services on land to produce products, such as, bitumen, cement, and fuel.
Thanks to a unique combination of collection means (conveyor belts, two small boats, two cranes, 3 flotation collection systems), the Manta will be able to collect both floating macro-waste and smaller debris from 10 millimetres upwards and up to one metre deep.
The propulsion of the vessel will be provided by a customised hybrid system combining 1,500 m2 of sails, and electricity will be produced by a series of on-board renewable energy production equipment: two wind turbines, hydro-generators, almost 500 m2 of photovoltaic solar panels, and by the on-board waste to energy unit. This unique and innovative system will enable the Manta to operate autonomously on average 75% of the time, without using fossil fuels, with an environmental footprint reduced to the strict minimum.
We’ve found in our research that some areas of our oceans are more polluted than others. Where will you focus the efforts of Manta, in the beginning?
We will probably start in South-East Asia, but the Manta will intervene mainly in Asia, Africa and South America, on strategic sectors where marine plastic pollution is particularly dense: coastal areas, rivers, large rivers mouths and estuaries. As a deep-sea vessel, the Manta will also be capable of intervening rapidly in polluted areas following a natural or climatic disaster (typhoons, tsunamis...).
How much can Manta collect?
With a waste collection and processing capacity of 1 to 3 tons per hour, the Manta's objective is to rid the oceans of 5,000 to 10,000 tons of plastic waste per year.
Some are sceptical or even say that collecting is pointless. In my opinion, it would be totally irresponsible and inhumane to do nothing when we know that if we do not act, in 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic than fish. Each year, around 12 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean and every minute, 17 tons of plastic are dumped into it ! Bare in mind that 1.5 million animals die each year because of plastic pollution! We must act now.
Manta is the first ship of its kind, and no doubt has taken lots of research hours and innovation! When and where are you looking to launch it?
A technical consortium of some twenty companies and five research laboratories are at work on the design and development of the boat. The selection of the shipyard that will build the Manta will take place in the coming months, but the launch and the first collection campaigns will take place in 2024. But in the meantime, I can already tell you that we will start our first collection campaigns this year with one of our small boats, the Mobula 8, which will be ready in spring! We are in talks with countries that would be willing to host us.
Plastics, like most ocean pollution, comes from land. How hopeful are you that we, as societies, can shift our usage and consumption?
It is imperative to limit over-packaging and the use of single-use plastic by developing bulk and deposits in distribution outlets. Laws on the circular economy and on the fight against food waste are multiplying. The industrial world is also considering a change of model to limit the production of plastic or to make better use of the recycling of this waste. Things are moving but it is absolutely necessary to accelerate the pace at all levels!
Describe the sea, for you.
All my life, pleasure, wild life.
What would be your one piece of advice for any sailor looking to have less impact on the oceans?
Stop buying new boats, using only sailing boats, catch all waste !
You’ve done A LOT of sailing! Is there a trip you’d still like to add to your logbook?
Thank you to TheSeaCleaners team for their help in organising this feature!