The ocean is plagued by plastic. Fishing nets, consumer waste, and perhaps most concerning, microplastics. According to a 2015 article in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, authors estimated that “275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean.” Fortunately, we have come a long way in ocean cleanup technology to help alleviate some of the burdens on our marine life — but we still have quite a ways to go. Meet a few of the organizations working to clean our oceans:
The Ocean Cleanup Project
The most notable and ambitious effort is known as The Ocean Cleanup Project. Using passive technology, they plan to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years. The system relies on a long floater to sit atop the water and a skirt that hangs beneath it to catch plastic. And rather than using more energy to move it, the system uses passive technology, meaning it works with the motion of waves to move it through the gyre so that it can cover the 617,000 square miles that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch spans.
The technology is designed to capture small to large debris, ranging from millimeters to tens of meters in size. According to the website, the project aims to clean up 90% of ocean plastic by the year 2040.
All of this can be done without interference to passing ships and marine life. The hope of this project is to clear out large plastics before the elements break them down into harder-to-remove microplastics.
The Ocean Cleanup: Rivers
The Ocean Cleanup’s mission doesn’t stop at the ocean. Part of their effort is to tackle plastic before it even reaches the ocean. According to their estimates “over 1000 rivers are accountable for 80% of global annual emissions.” The other 20% of plastic is spread out across 30,000 rivers. In order to combat this plastic problem, they’ve created a technology called “The Interceptor.” It is a 100% solar-powered conveyor belt that captures trash in rivers autonomously.
The Interceptor looks a bit like a catamaran floating on the river. It uses a barrier to guide trash as it floats along the current onto a conveyor belt. The trash is then shuttled into dumpsters on the Interceptor which can hold up to 50 cubic meters of waste. Once the dumpsters are almost full, a text is sent to the operators who then collect the trash off of a barge and send the Interceptor back out for collection.
Currently, Interceptors are deployed in Jakarta, Indonesia, Selangor, Malaysia and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Their goal is to clean up 1,000 rivers in just five years.
From the Seabin Project comes the Seabin V5. Slightly different from The Ocean Cleanup’s approach, the Seabin V5 is a device located in marinas, yacht clubs, ports and other calm bodies of water.
The Seabin V5 works by moving up and down with the tide which results in water flowing into the pump. As it pumps water into the device, it collects any floating trash, organic debris such as leaves plus macro and microplastics in a catch bag and pumps the water back into the ocean.
With the addition of oil absorbent pads, the Seabin V5 can also clean the water of petroleum-based surface oils and detergents. This captures approximately 1.4 tons of debris annually and only costs $3 a day. While Seabin Project is working to implement their own recycling system, they provide each user with a waste management plan.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is one of the most commonly used forms of plastic. It’s a polyester used for fibers, fabrics, food packaging, containers, bottles and jars, and it’s relatively easy to recycle.
A French company called Carbios is behind the creation of an optimized, mutant enzyme called PET depolymerase. This enzyme can break down more than 90% of PET into components simple enough to be reused for food-grade plastic in just 10 hours. Previous technology was limited in its capabilities, with enzymes only able to repurpose PET for certain, specific items.
Carbios is now being funded by major companies such as PepsiCo, Nestle and L’Oreal to continue research that will help break down plastics before they can reach the ocean.
A research collaboration between the University of Adelaide, Curtin University, Edith Cowan University and the Guangdong University of Technology in China are working on ridding the ocean of microplastics. The goal is to do so by breaking them down further into components that are not harmful to the marine environment using carbon nanosprings.
These coil-shaped magnets aid in the catalytic degradation of microplastics using advanced oxidative processes so that the resulting molecules can dissolve in water.
According to a press release, in eight hours, this method removed a significant portion of microplastics and remained stable in the oxidative environment. However, since microplastics are all different, the group will continue to work on making sure the nanosprings are successful with every type of microplastic encountered.
The Next Generation
Even teenagers are taking on the challenge! Fionn Ferreira was an 18-year-old from West Cork, Ireland when he won the 2019 Google Science Fair for his invention.
Ferreira created a ferrofluid, a combination of oil and magnetite powder, that the microplastics could bind to. He then used a magnet to remove the ferrofluid from the water it was in and had an 87% success rate in removing microplastics from various water sources. According to the site, Ferreira hopes to scale his invention so that it may be used in wastewater treatment facilities so that plastic can be removed from the water before it has the chance to reach the ocean.
Ferreira isn’t the only kid on a mission. In San Diego, the non-profit Clear Blue Sea is working with interns from various San Diego universities in the creation of Floating Robot Eliminating Debris or FRED. FRED is a solar-powered catamaran that uses conveyor belt technology to remove plastics ranging from five mm to five meters long. While they are based out of San Diego, Clear Blue Sea plans to expand FRED to Hawaii and then globally.