Fighting pollution with Algae

When it comes to global-scale issues such as climate change, it’s usually the small, local problems that spur ordinary people into action. While the dire rhetoric of the climate crisis is a powerful driver of green technology across the globe, it was the visual pollutants floating about the waters off their favorite Dutch beach that caused two brave Hollanders to try and do their part.

Nikki Spil and Sjoerd Laarhoven, from IJmuiden, regularly watched waste pour out of the factory on one side of the IJmuiden harbor before making its way across to the beaches so often enjoyed by citizens of their town.

“If you’re constantly in this area, you can literally see the pollution float by. Especially on stormy days there is no way around it. Sjoerd and I wondered whether there was anything we could do to tackle this problem.”

(Nikki, quote taken from MaatschapWij)
Picture source: Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Now, across from the smoking chimneys of the Tata Steel factory, Nikki and Sjoerd have decided farm seaweed at their Sea Farm Ijmond, to provide a simple, nature–based answer to the pollution drifting onto their beach. Reports, like the one from July, produced a model showing that mankind can negate the worst of CO2 emissions by planting a trillion trees makes it seem like algae are the optimal flora for the job.

“People often think that trees can provide the world with the biggest amount of oxygen, but actually it’s the algae. They’re the lungs of the Earth.”

(Nikki, quote taken from MaatschapWij)

Seaweed is also a natural filter of pollutants, and is also used as a treatment in chelation therapy for patients with heavy metal poisoning. Nikki and Sjoerd purposefully chose to create their sea farm in an area where it could clean their local harbor, even though the growth of their seaweed might could be improved elsewhere.

Seaweed, if dried and rendered properly, can also be used as an alternative to plastic for many common household items. Designers Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros developed the bioplastic to replace synthetic plastics, using the dried algae coming from this farm, which can be turned into a material that can then be used in 3D printers to create plastic items from trash cans to tableware and shampoo bottles. Nikki and Sjoerd’s seaweed farm is still small, but in no way insignificant, come harvest time the aquatic plant is shipped off to a refinery in the town of Petten.

“There they purify it and turn it into a natural fertilizer. The rest is being prepared for bio plastic as we speak,”

(Nikki, quote taken from MaatschapWij)