We’ve all heard the horror stories of plastic finding its way into our oceans. With 8 million metric tons of plastic waste currently floating in the world’s waters, efforts to reduce and combat the rising rates of pollution are critical.
There are individual lifestyle changes like switching to reusable straws and water bottles to reduce your own plastic consumption, but impactful change will rely on overarching policy changes and cleanup efforts.
Luckily, some of these cleanup efforts are already underway. Current efforts to clean up the ocean are finding an intersection between modern day technology and ecology to solve the current plastic crisis.
What’s in Our Oceans?
Many different types of plastics find their way into the water. Whether they are thrown there by beach tourists, or end up being windblown from the landfill into the sea, these plastics can cause damage to marine life and water quality once they are in the ocean.
For example: that plastic grocery bag you got from the gas station when you bought chips and sunscreen on the way to the beach will take 20 years to decompose if it ends up in the water. Or, the six cans from your six pack of drinks will take 200 years each to decompose, plus the 400 years it will take for the ring that holds them together.
And the problem is only being compounded by COVID-19. Protective gear including gloves and disposable face masks are now also making their way into the seas. And as more people are dining at home, plastic takeout packaging is becoming more and more common. In fact, the global plastic packaging market is projected to grow 5.5% from 2019 to 2021.
How Are We Cleaning Our Oceans?
Onland efforts to reduce plastic usage and packaging are beneficial to stop more plastic for entering the waters. But what about the tons of plastic already polluting the oceans? Cleanup efforts are attempting to get rid of some of this waste and make the ocean a safer place for marine life.
This technology is attempting to target the large trash buildup — named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — that is found in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. This large, floating boom has a skirt that collects plastics and cleans them to get rid of toxins and nonplastics. Once the skirt is full, the collected plastics will then be transported out of the oceans and recycled. This is an ongoing project and the technology is still in development, with System 002 currently being built.
The WasteShark system was named for the whale shark, because of the way the animal filters food and eats through its wide mouth. Similarly, the drone skims the ocean’s surface and filters the water to comb out any plastics or litter. The drone is able to collect 400 pounds of litter in one 16 hour trip through the waters. More than just collecting waste, however, the system is also able to send information about water quality back to the RanMarine Technology lab to help scientists diagnose any marine issues.
Floating Robot for Eliminating Debris, also known as FRED, is a water-traversing robot that is powered by renewable energy and aims to vacuum up debris in the waterways. Flaps on the front of the FRED machine collect the debris, which is then sorted into collection bins. The system also has sensors to detect marine life and swims at a slow enough speed to let animals swim out of the way. This technology is in development by student scientists and a California-based nonprofit — the full project is expected to wrap up in 2023.
Check out the following infographic for more wild ways we’re cleaning our oceans.