Three vessels are currently cleaning Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Flickr/Charlie Phillips
Three vessels are currently cleaning Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Flickr/Charlie Phillips

Boats have recently been spotted in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay in connection with the 2016 Olympic Games. But they aren’t there for sailing practice — their purpose is to clean up garbage in the area’s notoriously polluted waterways in preparation for the events.

Dubbed “eco-boats,” the three vessels are each manned with three-person crews — two navigators and one garbage collector. They’re tasked with removing all sorts of garbage from the water, everything from water bottles and sofas to electronics and household appliances. Each boat holds about 37 square feet of trash, which is then sorted into waste and recyclables. This is no small task, either: Garbage floats near the surface in such high volume that it poses a risk of colliding and interfering with Olympic sailboats and other watercraft if it’s not collected. Seven more boats are planned for deployment over the next two months.

These efforts are part of a larger $840 million bay cleanup project led by Brazilian authorities in preparation for the 2016 Games. In the Rio 2016 Sustainability Management Plan, large-scale eco-barriers are also planned to be constructed where rivers meet the bay to prevent new waste from entering the water.

But the construction and preparations for the 2016 Games and its added toll on the area’s resources are not to blame for the state of Rio’s waterways. Decades of poor waste and pollution management has contributed to the problem, with limited trash collection and sewer processing services for the area’s 6 million residents causing dangerously high levels of pollution in the water.

With only 30 percent of the area’s sewage being treated — and the rest flowing directly into rivers and bays — fecal contamination levels are 195 times the level of what is considered safe in the United States, posing dangerous conditions for Olympic athletes. While the eco-boats will not address sewage issues, Rio is taking action on that front as well, with the Sustainability Management Plan calling for expanded capacity at treatment plants and upgrades to the sewer network.

Rio’s Olympic organizing committee has almost two and a half years to fulfill its commitment of reducing water pollution by 80 percent. Despite what appears to be a hard road ahead of them, officials seem confident that environmental goals will be met. However, Rio will have to take additional steps if the city wants to keep its waters clean after the Games have ended. Biologist and environmentalist Mario Moscatelli recently told the Associated Press, “This sort of manual collection is great for photos. But it doesn’t even begin to address the root of the problem.”

Want to read more about Rio’s cleanup efforts? Rio de Janeiro Lays Down the Law on Littering