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Artist's concept of large skimmers removing floating debris from a river.

River Recovery

Partnership of UCSB Benioff Ocean Initiative and The Coca-Cola Foundation provides funding to clean up rivers and stem flow of waste to oceans

Among The Coca-Cola Foundation’s philanthropic focuses is a commitment to support behavioral change projects regarding recycling. It’s an ethos well-suited to the expertise of the Benioff Ocean Initiative, based at the Marine Science Institute, in developing innovative ways to collect and analyze waste from our rivers and oceans and address the plastic crisis.

Now the pair’s unique partnership will do exactly that, funding nine river clean-up projects across the world to the tune of $11 million over the next three years.

“Rivers play an important role in addressing the issue of marine debris. Our global partnership with UC Santa Barbara’s Benioff Ocean Initiative will help identify viable approaches to a truly global challenge — cleaning up some of the world’s most polluted rivers and identifying new ways to prevent plastic waste entering our rivers and oceans,” said Helen Smith Price, president of The Coca-Cola Foundation, global philanthropic arm of The Coca-Cola Company. “The World Without Waste strategy of The Coca-Cola Company and the foundation’s focus on recycling and behavioral-change projects highlight the need for greater collaboration between business, governments, charitable organizations, researchers and NGOs to make this happen,” she added. “We believe projects such as these nine river clean-up programs are a real and effective means of working together to deliver real change around the world.”

The projects selected for funding span four continents: Asia, Africa, North America and South America.

“Scientists have made great strides in identifying how important rivers are in carrying plastic waste to the ocean,” said Douglas McCauley, a professor and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative, which was brought to life in 2016 through a $10 million gift from Marc and Lynne Benioff to promote science-based ocean problem solving at UC Santa Barbara. “We are so thrilled to now use this research to strategically mount an intervention to this global problem.”

One of the projects to be awarded funding is an effort to remove plastic from Thailand’s Lat Phrao canal led by the TerraCycle Global Foundation.

“The greatest change comes about when the very people creating the problem become part of the solution,” said James Scott, director of TerraCycle Thai Foundation, a program partner. “The Benioff Ocean Initiative and The Coca-Cola Foundation funding has created employment opportunities for underprivileged workers to become the leaders of change in their own community. This project has brought together community and religious leaders, government officials and underprivileged community members to collectively remove over 23 tons of plastic waste from Lat Phrao canal in just over a month. This begins a journey towards a plastic-free Lat Phrao canal, and a community that is much more responsible for their plastic.”

Eight other projects — in Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Jamaica and Kenya — are also included in the program, which has been christened the Clean Currents Coalition. Each project will both clean up the target polluted river and use data about the captured waste to change behavior in people, local communities and businesses.

The information gathered from each program will also be shared broadly, so that others can apply learnings to future projects.

“We are definitely excited about getting this plastic waste out of our rivers and oceans,” McCauley said. “But we are also excited to turn this plastic waste into data that can help us turn off the tap of this waste in the first place.”