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Technology Tackling Ocean Pollution

Marine pollution is a complex issue that affects everyone on our planet.  “Humans deposit more than 8 million tons of trash into the ocean each year,” the Ocean Conservancy’s Nicholas Mallos told NPR’s Michel Martin. “That’s the equivalent of one dump truck full of plastic every minute.”  The environmental impact will have long-lasting effects unless something is done sooner than later.

In recent years, a global commitment to eradicate plastic pollution has garnered attention and the movement has developed cutting edge technologies. Is it too late? In the United States alone, “almost 40 percent of the country’s population lives in coastal shoreline counties.  These counties contribute $6.6 trillion to the U.S. economy,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  In this blog, we take a further look at some of the revolutionary devices attacking this global problem. 

The Ocean Cleanup

When deployed, The Ocean Cleanup’s plastic collecting device is intended to collect trash in its U-shaped arms. Image by The Ocean Cleanup

Boyan Slat is the Dutch student behind the Ocean Cleanup.  Invented by Slat when he was just seventeen, the ambitious project uses satellite imaging and machine learning to help clean up and capture 5 trillion pieces of plastic trash they have observed in the world’s “ocean garbage patches.”  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is where trash accumulates in 5 ocean garbage patches, with one of the world’s largest accumulation zone of ocean plastics situated halfway between Hawaii and California. The patch contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, and covers an area twice the size of Texas.  The full-scale deployment of their systems is estimated to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every 5 years.  

The idea began at a TedTalk in 2012, when Slat brought up the idea, which went viral and led to a Kickstarter campaign. The Kickstarter crowdfunding project launched in 2012 and brought in nearly $2 million in 100 days, making it “the most successful non-profit crowdfunding campaign in history” at the time.

In September of 2018, The Ocean Cleanup launched its first prototype, called Wilson, from San Francisco but the device wasn’t accomplishing what it was set out to do. The slow speed of the solar-powered 600-meter barrier didn’t allow it to scoop up the plastic from the garbage patch. To clean up “the world’s largest ocean cleanup” wasn’t going to be simple, it’s all part of the process when you take on a project this enormous. 


The Seabin collecting ocean plastic at Republic of Singapore Yacht Club. The most commonly collected items by the Seabin are cigarette butts, followed by plastic food wrappers. Image: Eco-Business

This Aussie invention is fairly new.  Perth surfers, Pete Ceglinski and Andrew Turton, quit their day jobs to tackle the environmental problem and developed the Seabin Project. Their 2015 prototype, the Seabin, works by sucking in and holding the surrounding trash and debris. Water is sucked in from the surface and passes through a catch bag inside the Seabin, with a submersible water pump.  The water is then pumped back into the marina leaving litter and debris trapped in the catch bag to be disposed of properly. One bin can hold up to 20 kg of trash and it costs less than one dollar to run. 

“It is basically a floating rubbish bin. We have a submersible water pump at the bottom, we bring water from the top, we pump it out the bottom and in the middle we catch it with a filter,” said CEO and creator Pete Ceglinski.

Their Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in 2016, raised nearly $300,000 in two months for their pollution device. Dozens of countries have installed Seabins to help clean up their waterways, with the organization being bombarded with an increasing number of orders from all over the world.


In the photo: 4Ocean cleanup Credit: 4Ocean

On a surfing trip in Bali, Andrew Cooper and Alex Schulze were baffled by the amount of plastic they saw.  Driving by local fishing villages, they realized how much the pollution affected the fishermen whose livelihoods were dependent on the ocean.  They soon realized the fishing nets could be used to pick up plastic as well. “We saw them taking all the plastic out of their nets and throwing it back in the ocean,” Cooper said about the fishermen. “We were like, ‘Why are you doing that? Stop throwing it back overboard into the ocean, that’s why there’s no fish left.’ They literally said, ‘Well, no one’s paying us to collect plastic.”  Which is how 4Ocean was created.

Andrew Cooper and Alex Schulze are the co-founders of 4Ocean. Made with recycled materials, every bracelet purchased funds the removal of 1 pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines. In less than 2 years, 4ocean has removed 3,895,861 pounds of trash from the ocean and coastlines.

In the photo: 4Ocean bracelet Credit: 4Ocean

4Ocean sells each bracelet for $20 with the promise that the money from each purchase will fund one pound of trash removal. The for-profit company takes plastic and glass waste pulled from the ocean around the world and repurposes it by making bracelets out of the recycled materials. The project aims to reduce marine plastic waste by 70% by 2025.


Sixth-grader Anna Du’s invention to clean the ocean propelled her to become one of ten finalists for Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge in 2018.  Using her robotics background, Du’s smart-infrared based ROV (remote-operated vehicle) design, identifies and removes microplastics from marine environments.  The robot moves through water and spots plastics using infrared light, on the ocean floor, without harming living organisms.

The ROV is made up of PVC pipes and uses propellers to move through the water and a novel combination of fishing weights and foam pool floats that allow it to move up and down. “The real invention here is the sensing,” says roboticist and engineer Dana Yoerger, “The ROV is nicely done for a 12-year-old and hers is quite clever,” Yoerger adds.








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