The latest innovation to tackle plastic pollution? A bubble barrier.

A wall of bubbles can intercept plastics in rivers and canals without blocking the passage of boats and marine wildlife. Tests of a prototype in the IJssel river in the Netherlands found it stopped 86% of waste on average.

Now, the Dutch start-up behind the Bubble Barrier has teamed up with the municipality of Amsterdam and the regional water authority to run a three-year pilot of its technology.

It has just installed the first operational barrier in the Westerdok, at the end of Amsterdam’s canal belt, which empties into the IJ river and, eventually, the North Sea. The aim is to catch and collect plastic waste near the source, before it reaches the open sea.

Air bubbles stop canal plastics before they reach the sea.
Image: The Great Bubble Barrier

Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean – roughly one garbage truckload every minute.

With rivers transporting much of that plastic waste to the ocean, the Bubble Barrier could help address the problem further upstream.

How does the Bubble Barrier work?

The barrier is a perforated tube that sits across the bottom of a canal or river. Compressors pump air through the holes, creating bubbles that carry the waste as they rise to the surface.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without healthy oceans - but they're more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

The tube is placed diagonally to allow the natural current to move the waste to one side of the canal or river, where it’s caught by a floating platform and then removed.

The concept is based on existing technology: curtains of air bubbles have been used to contain oil spills and to reduce underwater noise levels around sea-bed construction sites.

Image: The Great Bubble Barrier

Each year, Amsterdam’s garbage boats remove around 42,000 kg of waste floating on or near the surface of the city’s waterways, including large amounts of plastic.

It’s hoped the Westerdok barrier will capture waste deeper in the water as well as smaller pieces of plastic the garbage boats can’t pick up.

The collected waste will be analyzed by the Amsterdam-based organization Plastic Soup Foundation.