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The Architect Getting Microplastics Out of Our Waterways

Ozy logo Ozy 2/10/2020 Linda A. Thompson
a person wearing a costume: E2 © Photographs by Linda A. Thompson for OZY, Composite by Ned Colin E2

Marcella Hansch had already been in a bad mood when the barista told her “no.” She tries to take as few planes as possible but had decided to fly to New York to attend a special event organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Before getting on the 10-hour flight back to her native Germany, she ordered a latte at the airport and asked the barista to pour the drink in her battered, reusable steel cup.

“We have our own coffee cups,” the barista replied, offering one with plastic lining. After a terse, brief exchange, Hansch changed her mind. “Then I won’t buy a coffee,” she said, walking away as the coffee shop employees looked on in confusion.

That’s how uncompromising this 33-year-old architect-turned-environmental crusader is when it comes to plastic.

In the last few years, plastic pollution has emerged as one of the biggest environmental concerns of our time. It is estimated that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean. In the ensuing fight against plastic, many campaigns have focused on the source, pushing for bans on single-use plastic products like straws and persuading companies to switch to alternatives.

Plastic waste and debris underwater carried by the storm of © Provided by Ozy Plastic waste and debris underwater carried by the storm of

Hansch is helming one of just a handful of projects working on a solution to get the plastic already in our oceans out of the water (the Dutch Ocean Cleanup is the best-known other initiative). Her Aachen-based nonprofit Pacific Garbage Screening — a reference to the large trash vortex known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — is building a platform that will be able to filter microplastic from rivers and estuaries before it can enter the ocean, as 80 percent of plastic does. 

Microplastic — usually defined as particles smaller than 5 millimeters — develops from larger pieces of plastic in the water that have eroded over time, broken down by waves and sunlight. They tend to float 30 to 50 meters below the surface. Hansch says her initiative is the only clean-up effort in the world focused on microplastic, which accounts for most of the plastic in our oceans.

The modular platform Hansch is building will use passive sedimentation techniques that won’t risk damaging marine life, as nets do. Likely made of some form of recycled plastic, the platform will be adjustable to the size of the river. Its bulbous shape creates underwater canals that will cause microplastics to rise to the surface where they can be scooped up. “If we start before it’s entering the oceans, the plastics are more clean,” Hansch says, making recycling, upcycling and recovery of the filtered plastic easier.

Her group has also developed environmental education workshops for local schools, and Hansch has traveled the country to raise awareness of plastic pollution.

Pacific Garbage Screening has racked up several design and engineering awards, and Germany’s environmental protection agency described the project as “visionary and solution-oriented.” In September, Hansch was appointed a “goalkeeper” by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — that is, someone working to realize the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which is how she ended up in a New York airport, arguing with a barista over a plastic cup.

a sign on a wall: Marcella Hansch © Provided by Ozy Marcella Hansch  

“Marcella is very determined. If she has put something into her head, then it will be realized,” says her sister Melina Hansch, a member of the Pacific Garbage Screening team. “That something does not work does not exist for her.”

For Lili Fuhr, an environmental policy expert at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, the strength of Hansch’s initiative is its focus on “often overlooked” microplastics. But she says such clean-up efforts fail to tackle the plastic pollution problem at its root. “Right now, what we see is way too much emphasis downstream on solving the mess that we’ve created,” Fuhr says, warning that such campaigns put too much responsibility on individual behavior while obscuring the role of corporations and governments in the plastic crisis.

But Hansch says effecting legislative change is a long battle. “If we just wait for the government to do something, we will wait until they’ve destroyed our planet,” she says. “As a young organization, we cannot change the rules.” What they can do is raise awareness of the environmental cost of plastic among consumers, who are ultimately the ones who vote lawmakers into power.

Hansch grew up in Sauerland, a hilly, rural and forested area in North-Rhine Westphalia. After finishing high school, she backpacked around Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. for a year before returning to Germany to study architecture at RWTH Aachen University, the country’s largest technical university. She came up with the idea for the platform as part of her master’s thesis and found it hard to let it go after graduating. But when experts at the university confirmed that her vision for the platform was indeed viable, she decided to establish Pacific Garbage Screening in 2016 to make it a reality.

For the next two years, the nonprofit was a labor of a love for the two dozen engineers, biologists, designers and economists with whom Hansch surrounded herself over her slow quest to develop the platform.

Marcella Hansch is playing video games in a room © Provided by Ozy Marcella Hansch  

Then, in July 2018, Hansch and her team raised $250,000 with a crowdfunding campaign and simultaneously received donations from two local foundations — the Straniak Foundation and the European Animal and Nature Conservation Foundation — that allowed them to put four people on the payroll. The money made it possible for Hansch to give up architecture and fully devote herself to the project in December 2018. “Now we’re on the road that [this] year we can develop a prototype,” she says. Hansch aims to raise $11 million over the next four years to deploy the platform, starting with European rivers such as the Danube before expanding across Asia and Africa.

Irrespective of where the project goes, she’ll continue arguing over one plastic cup at coffee shops. If we all start making little tweaks to what we consume and how we travel, we can build a critical mass, Hansch insists. Or, to put it more simply: “We want to empower people to do something. Because to do a little is much better than to do nothing.”

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