The Race for Water Foundation and its quest to upcycle plastic and stop marine pollution

Race for Water

In a “race against time to save the oceans,” the Race for Water Foundation1 – a non-governmental organization dedicated to water preservation – embarked on a global mission to study and raise awareness about ocean waste.

Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Race for Water Foundation works on a number of initiatives to combat marine plastic pollution found throughout the Earth’s waterways, as well as educating the general public, key policymakers and industry about the urgency of preserving our world’s water.

They do this through introducing solutions (the development of a new socioeconomic model giving end-of-life plastic a value); research (working within science to discover the impact of plastic pollution); and awareness (alerting, mobilizing and informing people of the urgent need to find solutions for today’s plastic pollution). On top of these fundamentals and inspired by a circular economy, the Foundation is proactively looking to find and implement innovative ways to introduce economic value to plastic waste, giving new business opportunities and positive impact to local communities.

Odyssey expedition takes to the oceans to analyze waste

In perhaps the biggest undertaking to understand the current state of marine litter today, the Race for Water Foundation set up the Race for Water Odyssey (R4WO), a unique environmental expedition to gather scientific and sociological data on the impact of plastic pollution in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans for the first time. The expedition set off from Bordeaux, France in March 2015 and made its way around the world measuring the impact of plastics in the marine environment through debris sampling.

The expedition was in collaboration with The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (UNESCO-IOP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A number of universities including École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Duke University and Oregon State University are also playing critical roles in analyzing the micro-plastics (decomposed plastic particles) as defined by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Protocol.

After more than 32,000 nautical miles (36,832.8 miles/59,264 km) over nine months, numerous samplings in 17 locations and even a capsizing incident of the main vessel, the expedition landed back in Bordeaux, France on November 18, 2015. While samples are still being analyzed by the R4WO scientific network, the expedition has already been showcased in Paris, France at COP21 at the end of November 2015 raising awareness of marine litter in today’s world.

To understand more about the future of this project and the Foundation’s objectives in 2016, IN recently spoke to Lucie Gerber, Race for Water’s International Press and Communication Officer:

What have been some of the most surprising finds you have encountered in your R4WO research?
Perhaps the most surprising point is that we’ve found pollution is everywhere. We’ve found pollution from Easter Island, to the Palau archipelago, from the Cape of Good Hope, to Hawaii. We’ve found it in some of the most remote islands of the world.

What happens next with your research?
The R4WO is all about understanding what is going on in scientific terms. It’s also about meeting stakeholders and understanding the sociological impact. We’ve been eager to talk to scientists, NGOs, politicians, even fishermen to learn more about their experiences. This is the first phase of our project. The second phase is about creating awareness around the importance of recycling plastic before it gets to the ocean and by reintegrating it into a circular economy. By giving life to new plastic bags, pellets or even textile fiber used in construction, we can stop the flow of debris before it even touches the water. This is critical.

We are currently working on finding concrete solutions, for example, turning plastic waste into energy (such as, oil, gas and electricity. In fact, we are planning to implement two or three pilot projects with these technologies in 2016. Our mission is to find, promote and implement solutions to transform plastic waste into new business streams, bringing positive impact to local communities. By creating a circular economy for end-of-life plastics, it will stop the flow of plastic into waterways and oceans.

What can individuals do to help minimize water pollution?
Our organization believes this can be summed up in three words: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. By reducing in the first place, it’s the first step in preventing plastic pollution. If we all do our best to reuse – e.g. plastic bags – we can cut down on the impact to the environment. Finally, people need to understand the importance of sorting to help recycling. Unfortunately, not every city or country has the means or infrastructure to recycle, but by sorting it properly, there is a greater chance that the waste gets to the right place.

What role can business play to help?
Take responsibility. This is the key. We need plastic, but we have to take responsibility for their end-of-life, which is not well managed currently. The plastics value chain has a responsibility to understand what happens at the end-of-life of plastics and need to take this into consideration from the beginning. It is also about raising awareness and educating the general public. We all have a role to play in waste management. It’s too late to “clean” our oceans – this is an impossible task – but we can work together to ensure we limit the damage in the future.

The Frisbees made of recycled plastic at the Milan EXPO2015 is a playful way to illustrate how to give a second life to plastic. Plastic to energy is a solution, but plastic to art can work too, on a smaller scale!


Lucie Gerber
International Press & Communication Officer at the Race for Water Foundation

The Race for Water Foundation is a charity dedicated to water preservation with the overarching goal of: finding, promoting and helping implement strategies that grant value to end-of-life plastics, thus preventing plastics pollution of waterways. In the article “The Race for Water Foundation and its quest to upcycle plastic and stop marine pollution”, Gerber explains the organization’s objectives and projects.


1Race for Water,