Cleaning Hong Kong’s waterways and beyond

  • The founders of the Clean Waterways Initiative share why they started their non-profit, how their solar-powered boats operate, and how water pollution affects the world
  • The group partnered with HSBC to launch four vessels that work to prevent rubbish from entering the open waters
Donna Mah |

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An HSBC Clean Waterways Programme vessel works to clean Hong Kong’s waters. Photo: Handout

Three secondary students spoke with the founders of the Clean Waterways Initiative about why they started the non-profit, what has happened since its establishment in 2019, and their upcoming plans. The students share what they’ve learned with Young Post readers here.

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Charlotte Wan Man-nok (Form 3, HKUGA College)

Picture yourself taking a refreshing stroll near the sea, but instead of seeing the sea foam green seawater glistening under the sun like you’d expect, your view is of countless pieces of trash sadly bobbing up and down in the water. At this point, you may be thinking, “Goodness gracious! Water pollution nowadays really is no joke.” This is along the lines of what Angus Harris and Ellen Ogren thought when they founded the Clean Waterways Initiative (CWI). CWI works to prevent rubbish and plastic debris from making its way into the open ocean, hoping to alleviate some of the stress caused by pollution.

Living by the beach in Shek O, Harris and Ogren experienced the litter-filled sea, contaminated by man-made waste, first-hand.

It was at the Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter that Angus Harris and Ellen Ogren decided to do something about the pollution they saw in Hong Kong’s waterways. Photo: Handout

“That’s when it really shocks you and you think, what are we doing to the planet?” said Harris.

One day, while they were looking out onto the rubbish-filled water of the Aberdeen West Typhoon Shelter, they decided that they needed to do something about the pollution.

“It is super important for us to do whatever we can for our kids and the next generation,” said Orgen. The couple started working on ideas to help clean up Hong Kong’s waterways, which led to the creation of CWI in 2019.

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It took several months of hard work to move the project forward, and the couple created rough designs for a zero-emission, solar-powered vessel to clean the city’s waterways. CWI found a corporate partner with similar values that cares for the environment in HSBC, and with their support, they launched the HSBC Clean Waterways Programme, with four bright red vessels cleaning the waters around Hong Kong. Witnessing their vision become reality was an exhilarating and joyous time for Harris and Ogren.

The purpose-built boats only operate in Hong Kong for now, but according to Ogren, “This is only the end of phase one.” Improvements to the vessel design are in development and CWI is looking to expand its work to other parts of the world, cleaning waterways and creating a less polluted world for future generations.

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Boris Kung Ka-ho (Form 4, NTHYK Yuen Long District Secondary School)

Operating in the most polluted waterways in Hong Kong, four fully solar-powered catamarans are now collecting marine pollutants every day.

The founders of the Clean Waterways Initiative (CWI), Angus Harris and Ellen Ogren, designed the vessels with zero emission output to pick up garbage from Hong Kong waterways and to prevent debris from entering the ocean.

The boats can be divided into two main components: the upper solar panel area, and the parallel hulls of the ship with a rake to collect rubbish. The solar panels on the top of the boat provide the main source of power to operate each vessel and, according to the CWI website, cut up to 16 tonnes of CO2 emissions per boat each year, which is equal to burning approximately 16,000 pounds of coal.

Students look for microorganisms in water samples during an event held by CWI. Photo: Handout

The boats use a two-stage filtration system in its design, which includes a primary rake and a secondary net. Using the rake, the boat first collects larger pieces of rubbish and lifts them onto the boat for sorting, while nets are used to get smaller pieces of rubbish such as polystyrene particles. According to the CWI site, each boat can collect and sort 2,500 litres of plastics and is manned by two experienced boat operators.

After recyclable items, such as plastic bottles and aluminium cans, are collected and sorted, they are then packed into reusable nets and transferred to the proper channels for processing. In the first year of operation, the boats collected more than 40 tonnes of landfill rubbish, 70,000 plastic bottles and 25,000 aluminium cans.

Harris said that during the process of designing the boats, many things were taken into consideration, including power efficiency and vessel stability. To begin, the boats had to be able to convert solar energy into electricity (stored in batteries) to power the engines. Even on cloudy days, solar panels can collect enough energy to power the boats, and rarely need to be plugged in to charge.

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The two engines which power the boat have been placed a wide length apart to maximise storage on the vessel without affecting its operation. Moreover, while in use, there is always hydrodynamic resistance, or drag, in the water which needs to be factored in. Many calculations were made to ensure stability for the boats as well as the safety of the boat operators.

When asked about marine life being collected by accident, Harris explained that the boats run at a slow and steady speed, so most marine life can move out of the way of the rake.

After successfully launching in Hong Kong, Harris hopes that the zero-emission boats will one day operate in other countries, collecting trash and keeping waterways around the world clean.

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Home-grown solution to waterways pollution, and what you can do to help

Jane Poon Wing-lum (Form 3, Hong Kong International School)

Gazing at the vast expanse of Victoria Harbour, you might spot one of the four Clean Waterways Initiative’s (CWI) solar-powered vessels slowly traversing the waters. The vessels are not only a sight to behold but are also imperative to the clean-up of the surrounding waters. They gently breeze through the harbour, sweeping away a myriad of rubbish and plastic debris in their wake, clearing the surface pollution burdening Hong Kong’s waterways. Purpose-built, the vessels are part of an innovative approach towards the plastic pollution crisis, paving the way for a greener future.

Harris and Ogren stand with one of their four zero-emission, solar-powered boats at the Aberdeen Marina Club. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Waterway pollution is not a novel issue in Hong Kong. However, the ongoing pandemic has further exacerbated the problem due to an unprecedented boom in single-use plastics. Consequently, it has become crucial to strengthen the clean-up efforts of waterways. But this is just a short-term solution. As stated by co-founder and director of the CWI, Angus Harris, citizens must change their consumption habits for substantial change to happen. In other words, we must reduce “toxic consumerism” to reduce the pollution we generate.

So, what is “toxic consumerism”? Simply put, it is when we buy more than we need, with detrimental consequences worldwide. The way in which our current society buys recklessly and disposes of goods has threatened the well-being of the environment, heightening plastic pollution to an extreme degree. Additionally, according to The World Counts (a news aggregator website), our current consumer society is overusing Earth’s resources by 70 per cent. Therefore, the first step in preserving the planet’s delicate balance is to consume less by not making unnecessary purchases.

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This brings us back to CWI and its marine pollution solution. When CWI co-founders Ellen Ogren and Angus Harris designed the zero-emission vehicles, they wished for them not only to serve a practical purpose in waterways clean-up, but to be highly visible advocates for change as well. They hope that when citizens see them, they will ponder why their presence is needed, and bring about conversations about plastic pollution in the community.

And so, the next time you spot a bright red Clean Waterways Initiative vessel, stop to think about what YOU can do to mitigate the problem of toxic consumerism.

To learn more, visit https://www.business.hsbc.com.hk/en-gb/clean-waterways.

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