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OM in the News: Trapping Plastic Waste

June 11, 2021

What do old televisions, street signs, motorbike helmets, windsurf boards, and Christmas trees have in common, asks CNN (June 10, 2021)? They were all caught floating down Amsterdam’s Westerdok canal — by a curtain of bubbles. “The Bubble Barrier” was developed as a simple way to stop plastic pollution flowing from waterways into the ocean. An air compressor sends air through a perforated tube running diagonally across the bottom of the canal, creating a stream of bubbles that traps waste and guides it to a catchment system. It traps 86% of the trash that would otherwise flow to the River IJssel and further on to the North Sea. The idea is to catch plastic without having a physical barrier like a net or boom blocking the river, which could disrupt aquatic life or interfere with shipping.

Up to 80% of ocean plastic is thought to come from rivers and coastlines. Much of the plastic in Amsterdam’s Westerdok canal comes from trash bags that local residents leave outside their homes. If the bags tear, wind and rain can carry trash into the canal.


Globally, 11 million metric tons of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year, where it can suffocate and entangle some aquatic species. Plastic debris less than five millimeters in length, known as microplastics, can also affect marine life. Often mistaken for food, microplastics are ingested and have been found in zooplankton, fish, invertebrates and mammalian digestive systems.

The albatross chick shown in the photo above is being fed pieces of plastics by its parents, which mistake the waste for food. Seabirds which ingest plastic waste are smaller, lighter, and suffer from a litany of health problems. Plastic waste kills about 1 million seabirds every year. The second photo shows an Hawaiian monk seal chewing on a plastic bottle.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. How is plastic waste an issue for operations managers?
  2. What are companies doing to minimize plastic usage and waste?
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