MAS Ocean Strainer: All you need to know

The MAS “Ocean Strainer” is a pilot floating trash trap installed in the Dehiwala Canal in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This 130-foot-wide barrier, made from a buoyant foam and canvas, floats across the length of the canal, and traps plastic waste before reaching the ocean through the canal mouth.

MAS Ocean Strainer at the Dehiwala canal

Brunch spoke to MAS Holdings Director – Environmental Sustainability Sharika Senanayake, who explained that the waste is collected daily by an appointed resource person from the community along the canal, and their partners Clean Ocean Force and the Western Provincial Council support the collection, removal, and disposal of garbage. She also added that this particular canal was selected as it is one of the more polluted canals in the area.

Why is MAS concerned about marine plastic pollution?

Speaking on this topic, Senanayake commented: “Hailing from a tropical island, for many of us at MAS, the issue of marine plastic waste is a personal one. These oceans protect our home, and these beaches have been our playgrounds since childhood. But today, they are littered with plastic waste and debris.”

MAS Team accepting the ‘Best Sustainability Projects’ award

For the last five years, MAS has been working with the Sri Lanka Navy and the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) to address this problem. Some of the activities that she listed include conducting islandwide beach clean-ups in partnership with MEPA, Sri Lanka Navy, and Eco Spindles, investing with the Sri Lanka Navy to establish over five collection centres for recycling (Crow Island, Kalpitiya, Mannar, Trincomalee, and Vavuniya) and partnering with Eco Spindles to develop a recycled polyester yarn made with collected PET waste.

Aside from this, they also produced the Sri Lanka Cricket jersey for the ICC 2019 World Cup, 2020 Women’s World Cup, and 2021 World Cup from upcycled fugitive PET waste; established “Plastic Chuckers” (PET collection bins) at 10 coastal locations to support the collection of marine plastic; and, with the support of MEPA and by recycling, converted 21 million PET bottles to fabric within MAS companies in 2020.

But despite the frequency of clean-ups and the magnitude of these efforts, Senayake explained that they would always see more debris on our shoreline, as inland waterways and canals pushed plastic waste along to the shore.

“Research shows that rivers and canals are the source of 80% of plastic that reaches the ocean. Therefore, we needed to address the marine plastic issue at the source, by trapping and removing the waste before it reaches the ocean,” she stated, adding that therefore, their objective was to look for a solution to capture the waste at the source – this was the inspiration behind building the floating trash trap that they call the “Ocean Strainer”.

How does the Ocean Strainer work?

With 100 km of canal network in Sri Lanka, the canals provided an opportunity to develop an innovative yet simple solution that could be low-cost and easily replicated across locations to create greater impact.

MAS Ocean Strainer

Clean Ocean Force Founder and Chairman Jerome Fernando explained that their solution is a pilot trash trap that can float across narrow inland waterways like canals, trapping plastic waste along the barrier. This solution, Ocean Strainer, is made of easily sourced, low-cost material. “The design is based on learnings from existing trash trap concepts from around the world, and has been adapted by MAS engineers, advised by MEPA officials, to fit the local canals and marine environment, while minimising the disruption to aquatic life,” he commented.

MAS Holdings Senior Executive – Environmental Sustainability Uvini Athukorala stated that over the last year, between August 2020 and September 2021, they have been able to keep approximately 67,450 kg of waste from reaching the ocean.

How is the waste collected and removed?

Fernando stated that they have identified a resident in the community who lives along the canal and equipped him with the tools and safety gear required to collect and remove the waste daily.

MAS and Clean Ocean Force Team at the Dehiwala Canal

“This daily clean-up operation is supported and funded by our partner Clean Ocean Force. This individual collects and removes the waste daily and the Western Provincial Council and the Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia Municipality support the project by collecting and sending possible waste for recycling and disposing the remaining waste, which has disintegrated beyond use,” he informed us.

According to an initial waste evaluation conducted by MEPA, during the first one to two months since installation, they have found the composition of the waste that was recovered.

The challenges faced

When speaking on the challenges, Fernando explained that one of the main challenges lies in the scale of waste that is collected. In the initial stages, they observed an average daily collection of waste between 30-50 kg of waste, during calm weather.

However, during the onset of the monsoon season, they observed significantly higher volumes of waste, with the increased rains, winds, and flow of water. Fernando commented: “During times like this, there is over 100 kg of waste collected daily, and it is beyond the capacity that we can manage alone. Therefore, we need to employ the support of more people with the help of the Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation (SLLRDC) to remove the waste from the canal whenever it goes beyond what one individual can manage.” 

He stated that this is incredibly challenging, but it is a labour of love for all of them involved. If this work is not done, all that waste would have been swept to the seas and impacted our shoreline, oceans, and marine life.

As key stakeholders of this project, Fernando said that they are always looking for other like minded partners to join them in supporting this mechanism and address the challenges they have such as manpower, funding, and the scaling up and replication of these solutions. He further added that it’s important that they raise awareness and educate people on proper disposal of waste, without which this issue will reach a scale that they won’t be able to control.

Plans in place to replicate and scale up the project

Senanayake also added that when they launched this pilot, the response was immense and many different institutions, companies, and even individuals wanted to support this. Recognising that this project can have massive impact if scaled up, in February 2021, they made the “Ocean Strainer” technology open source and available to any party who is interested in replicating it.

“We received over 60 queries from Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Fiji, the Philippines, etc., and we’ve currently got four partners who are working to replicate this in multiple canals in the Colombo, Kalutara, and Galle areas,” Senanayake commented, and added that they themselves are working on replicating the solution in the Wellawatte Canal, with the support of the relevant partners and authorities.

Their long-term aim is to give new life to the collected plastic by bringing it back into our value chain through the manufacturing process. According to Senanayake, MAS has been using polyester made from recycled PET in their supply chain for several years, including for the 2019 and 2021 Sri Lanka Cricket ICC World Cup jerseys. They hope that the recovered plastic can be repurposed into fabric by their PET-to-polyester recyclers to manufacture products for their customer brands, and they are working towards making this a reality.

“Our teams are currently researching and developing a more advanced version of this solution that can be implemented in larger waterways such as rivers,” Senanayake stated.

They are encouraged by the response they have been getting and they were just recently recognised by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce by receiving an award for the “Best Sustainability Projects” at their recently concluded Best Corporate Citizen Sustainability Awards 2021.

The collaborators working together on this project

Athukorala informed us that their main collaborator in the daily operations of this initiative is Clean Ocean Force, who works together with them to employ, supervise, and address the needs of the resource person who collects and removes the trash daily. They introduced this daily clean-up operation not only to the Dehiwala canal and the Ocean Strainer, but to many polluted beaches in the area. “Without their dedication, this project could not succeed in the long run. We are also supported by the Western Provincial Council, the Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia Municipality, and the SLLRDC, who are involved in the waste removal and disposal,” she stated.

MEPA supported them with the necessary approvals for the project, and the Environmental Police has also extended their support through supervision of the site. They also have our numerous partners who have shown interest and joined us to scale up this project.