Since the early 1950s, the rate of plastic production has increased faster than any other material in the world. It is estimated that more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic and plasticizing materials have been produced since the early 1950s, of which approximately 60 percent has ended up in a landfill or the natural environment. Today over 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually and in total, five to 12 trillion pieces of plastic waste are estimated to be in our oceans. According to the 2018 UN Environment Report, if present trends of plastic production, consumption, and disposal continue, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
Plastic pollution disrupts aquatic and marine ecosystems. When marine species ingest or are entangled in plastic debris, it can cause severe injuries or death. It destabilizes the global marine economies, impacting the global fishing industry and coastal tourism. Finally, plastic pollution threatens food safety and human health. A study conducted by the State University of New York at Fredonia found that water from plastic bottles contains twice as many microplastics (or small microscopic fragments of plastic) as tap water. In a separate study, traces of microplastics have been found in human blood, tissue, and organs. These microplastics are often comprised of carcinogenic materials.
More than 80 percent of all marine debris, from surface water to the deep seas, are plastic, making plastic the most abundant type of litter in the ocean. Plastic waste is found on the shorelines of every beach, on every continent on Earth, and can persist in the environment for centuries. With more than 99 percent of plastics being produced from petrochemicals, plastic is non-renewable and nonbiodegradable, making plastic pollution one of the most destructive and pervasive components of climate change. How do we subvert it?
Technology is a powerful way forward. There are a handful of companies that have laid the groundwork for marine cleanup tech, on which governments and other institutions can continue to build upon. 4Ocean and The Ocean Cleanup are two companies leading development and innovation in ocean cleanup technology.
2 Startups Innovating Ocean Cleanup Tech
- 4Ocean: Their BeBot, a beach-cleaning robot, mechanically sifts sand to remove plastic waste and other debris without harming the environment.
- The Ocean Cleanup: System 002, a floating trash collector, uses wind and wave action to guide it to where the most trash will be. It is designed to skim the garbage off the surface of the water.
4 Ocean and the BeBot
Founded in 2015 in Bali Indonesia by Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper, 4Ocean (a B-Corp or Benefit Corporation) is one of only a handful of for-profit organizations working to advance ocean-friendly legislation, which aims to improve waste management infrastructure. It hires teams around the world to actively recover trash currently polluting the ocean, rivers, and coastlines, and it is working to break the cycle of overproduction and overconsumption which contribute to plastic pollution. Recently, 4Ocean teamed up with Poralu Marine, a global leader in design, manufacturing, and installation of environmentally friendly marine tech, to create the BeBot.
The BeBot is a beach-cleaning robot that mechanically sifts sand to remove plastic waste and other debris without harming the environment. Operating on two 12-volt batteries and a solar panel, the BeBot is 100 percent electric and can clean 3,000 m2of beach per hour. That is equivalent to the size of 7 basketball courts. The BeBot operates at depths of up to 10 cm, with the ability to collect debris as small as 1 cm2. I collects items such as bottle caps, cigarette butts, food wrappers and other plastic fragments that would otherwise remain hidden in the sand, degrade sand quality, and eventually end up in the ocean or into the stomachs of seabirds, sea turtles and other marine animals. The BeBot operates quietly so as not to produce noise pollution and is remote-controlled and human-operated to ensure maximum safety of use, both to the surrounding environment and to the people and animals frequenting the beach.
One of the potential drawbacks is that the BeBot cannot distinguish between microplastics, sand, seashells, and possible organic materials. However, the robot is designed in a way that minimizes harm. It utilizes a sifting mechanism which allows the sand to pass through while collecting the larger objects. Once the BeBot is full, the remote operator will take the BeBot to its designated dumping area, sort through the materials, and remove the plastic waste and other litter.
The BeBot is the first of its kind in that it addresses coastal pollution in an environmentally friendly way. Many coastal properties employ the use of heavy-duty equipment such as tractors to rake the sand or manual laborers to clean their property’s beaches. These methodologies are less efficient, labor intensive, and not eco-friendly. Whereas the tractors can trigger coastal erosion and harm wildlife due to their size, the BeBot is lightweight, a fraction of the size of traditional beach tractors. It also comes with attachments such as rakes to remove algae and seaweed, a more efficient means of removal. Finally, unlike existing cleanup technology, the BeBot is 100 percent electric. It does not require fuel or produce harmful emissions.
Operating on two 12-volt batteries and a solar panel, the BeBot is 100 percent electric and can clean 3,000 m2of beach per hour.
4Ocean’s model and approach can be replicated by other for-profit businesses, and its technology can be replicated by nonprofit, research, and government entities.
Where the BeBot works to intercept trash before it enters the ocean, the next piece of technology works to remove plastic debris that has already found its way into the sea.
The Ocean Cleanup and System 002
Founded in 2013 in the Netherlands by Boyan Slat, The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization with a team of 120 engineers, researchers, and scientists all working to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. Focusing primarily on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and more recently working to intercept plastic in rivers around the world, The Ocean Cleanup has been a pioneer in ocean cleantech development and innovation.
System 002, the latest iteration of their cleanup system, was designed to capture and harvest plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Spanning an estimated 1.6 million square kilometers or an area twice the size of Texas, the GPGP is located in the North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California, and the largest of five massive patches of garbage in the world’s oceans. Composed of over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic debris ranging in size from large abandoned fishing nets to fragmented microplastics, the GPGP is over 50 years old and rapidly growing in size. System 002 was designed to concentrate the plastic and remove it from the ocean.
With an 800-meter-long floater and a 3-meter-deep skirt attached underneath, the U-shaped floating device moves with the ocean currents on the surface at less than 2 miles per hour. The floater provides buoyancy to the system preventing plastic from flowing over it. The skirt prevents smaller particles from escaping underneath. System 002 captures the plastic debris in two wings on either side of the device, and transports it to a central collection area called the retention zone. When full, the retention zone is emptied, the trash is separated by the different materials, packaged and sent to shore for recycling. The latest batch of trash captured by System 002 totaled over 90,000 kilograms, or almost 200,000 pounds of trash in one run.
The technology used in System 002 takes advantage of three natural oceanic forces: wind, waves, and currents. Both the plastic and the system are carried by the current, and wind and waves propel the system, moving slightly faster than the plastic, allowing the system to effectively capture the trash. The skirt extends deeper in the middle of the system than on the edges. As the current applies pressure to the skirt, the system naturally adopts a U shape, enabling it to capture plastic in the middle of the device and creating a downward current of water allowing marine life to safely swim underneath it.
Using computational modeling, the Ocean Cleanup team predicts where hotspots of trash will be and places the system in those areas. Outfitted with a number of solar-powered lights, cameras, sensors, anti-collision systems, and satellite antennas, the system actively communicates its position. Additionally, because the system, like the plastic, is free-flowing, it drifts in the same currents to the areas with the highest plastic concentration.
Spanning an estimated 1.6 million square kilometers or an area twice the size of Texas, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located in the North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California, and the largest of five massive patches of garbage in the world’s oceans.
The Ocean Cleanup Project predicts it will need around 10 full-size systems to clean the GPGP. Once scaled up and deployed into the four other garbage patches, The Ocean Cleanup Project aims to remove 90 percent of floating ocean plastic by 2040. Having successfully proven in October that System 002 is effective without detecting any substantial interference with the surrounding ecosystem or marine life, the Ocean Cleanup Project has begun to upscale, and work on System 003.
The Way Forward: Collaboration and Technology
There are several efforts that can be made by regional and national governments, research institutions, and industries collaboratively to address marine plastic pollution. Redesigning products in consideration of the whole lifecycle of plastic is a great place to start. Since the early 1950s there has been a shift away from the production of durable plastics towards single-use plastic. There are many different types of single-use plastic. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is used to produce water bottles; high-density polyethylene (HDPE) is used to make products such as shampoo bottles, milk jugs, and ice cream containers; low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is used to produce plastic bags and food packaging; polystyrene (PS) is used to make plastic utensils, plates, and cups.
Around the world more than one million plastic water bottles are purchased every minute, and more than five million single-use plastic bags are used annually. Aside from cigarette butts — whose filters contain tiny plastic fibers — water bottles, bottle caps, plastic grocery bags, and straws are the most common type of plastic waste found in the environment.
Efforts should also be made to adhere to and strengthen existing international policies which address plastic pollution and producer responsibility for development, production, and waste disposal. Significant legislative frameworks are 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter (the London Convention), the 1996 Protocol to the London Convention (the London Protocol), and the 1978 Protocol to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).
Finally, governments and industry leaders need to prioritize funding waste management and infrastructure, research, and technological innovation at a rate that meets the size of the problem. As for each of us individually, consumers and societies must collectively shift to more sustainable consumption practices, while holding their governments and large plastic producers accountable for implementing sustainable policies and abiding by new and existing legislative frameworks. Resolving the plastic pollution crisis will take all our collective and collaborative effort.