Barges pulling up all sorts of trash from Rio's polluted bay
RIO DE JANEIRO — A green boat cut through polluted waters in Brazil on Monday. It sailed in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay. It floated next to fishing boats. But instead of fish, the green boat caught plastic bags, soda bottles and an old toilet seat.
The green boat is one of three so-called "eco-boats." These are like floating garbage trucks. They are a key part of the plan to clean up Rio's Guanabara Bay. The government promised it will be clean in time for the 2016 Olympic Games. The bay and other Rio waterways will hold Olympic sailing events.
But some people say the boats don't do enough. They don't deal with waste water that's flushed out of homes and into the bay. It's the bigger problem.
There isn't much in the way of trash and sewage services in Rio. This is a huge city of 6 million people. Tons of garbage and raw waste flow down its rivers each day. They empty into the bay. Sometimes you can see mountains of trash. There are old sofas and even washing machines.
Water Pollution A Big Worry
The Associated Press looked at more than 10 years of tests of the waters. In all of them, levels of bacteria were too high. They were far above what would be considered safe by Brazilian or U.S. law.
Swimmers stopped coming to nearly all the beaches long ago. Some health experts say athletes could get sick if they touch the water. Expert sailors have warned about crashes. The floating trash could hurt or even sink sailboats during the Olympics.
Water pollution has been making headlines in Rio's newspapers lately. Thick patches of brown foam showed up along the city's most popular beaches. Beaches like Copacabana are full of holiday visitors during Brazil's summer which takes place during winter in the U.S.. The beaches have also been flooded with trash. Much of it is just floating in water only a few feet from the sand.
That's where the city government hopes the eco-boats will make a difference. The boats are rectangular and made of steel. They have a net that traps garbage floating up to 18 inches below the water's surface. It captures everything. It can catch trash and bigger things like abandoned television sets and refrigerators. The trash is dumped into the boat. Then recyclables are sorted out.
The boats don't deal with sewage. But the government insists they'll make a big dent in the overall pollution.
Better "Eco-Barriers" Needed
The goal is to "not to have floating garbage in Guanabara Bay," said Gelson Serva. He runs the state government's bay cleanup program. The program is an $840 million project. It includes efforts to make the city's sewage treatment system bigger. Less than a third of Rio's sewage is treated. The rest flows into area rivers, the bay, lagoons and its world-famous beaches.
"Those who live around the bay can already notice a difference over the past two years," Serva said.
Three mid-sized boats began working on Friday. They weigh 4 tons and can hold 37 square feet of trash. Each boat costs $842 a day to operate. This includes fuel and a three-person crew. The crew is two sailors and a garbage collector. Serva said six small boats and one larger boat will join them by March.
Mario Moscatelli is a scientist. He said that the eco-boats are a good step in the right direction. But he thinks they are too little, too late.
What's needed now is more serious action, he says.
Moscatelli said "eco-barriers" should be put in place on the big rivers flowing into the bay. That could keep out the garbage at the source. The eco-barriers that are on some rivers now are too weak. They let most of the trash through, he said.
He said the boats being used now don't "even begin to address the root of the problem."