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Whale shark-inspired hovering drones and four-wheeled robots similar to the Mars rover are some of the latest inventions being developed to help clear litter from the oceans.
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According to a paper published in Nature Sustainability, the number of tools used to monitor, prevent and eliminate marine pollution has grown almost exponentially over the past four years. The research led by the biologist Nikoleta Bellou at the Institute for Coastal Research Helmholtz Center Hereon is the most comprehensive analysis of solutions for ocean cleansing to date.
“Unfortunately, there is more focus at the political level on banning single-use plastics,” said Bellou. “But we have already polluted the oceans and we have to do something to reclaim it, along with all the necessary measures to reduce pollution at the source.”
Chemicals, fossil fuels, and plastics are found in all of the world’s oceans and have been found on both the surface and bottom of the oceans. Marine litter threatens the survival of wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fish and turtles because they can become entangled in it or mistaken for food. Tiny pieces of plastic known as microplastics can move up the food chain and eventually end up in the human body.
The MAPP bot was developed to detect small pieces of garbage on beaches.
Source: TechTics / Project.BB
Between 1990 and 2015, up to 91 million tons of garbage ended up in the oceans, of which up to 87% was plastic, according to the study. An estimated 5.25 trillion trash particles are currently floating in the oceans.
While the effects of ocean pollution were somewhat understood in the late 1980s, it was not until 2016 that solutions to solving the problem really emerged. Of the 177 methods analyzed by Bellou and her colleagues, 73% were only developed in the last four years. Most approaches so far deal with surveillance, with only 30 aimed at cleanup, the research found. Most focus on large trash floating on the surface, which means microplastics remain an unsolved problem on the ocean floor.
Funding skyrocketed in 2014 after the European Union launched research programs such as the Horizon2020 initiative, which cost almost 80 billion euros (97 billion US dollars). About half of the marine projects available today have been government funded, while a third has been funded through collaborations between nonprofits, the public, and businesses, according to the paper.
The new research, which does not reveal which specific projects Bellou and her team have analyzed, points to a broad spectrum of inventions – and the challenges involved in scaling them.
RanMarine’s WasteShark collects rubbish floating on the surface of rivers and canals.
Source: Ran Marine
Solutions that have been invented in recent years have included trash cans, giant plastic collection barriers, and a marine drone that collects floating trash through a wide opening that mimics the mouths of whale sharks.
There is also BeachBot, a garbage collection rover that picks up small litter such as cigarette butts, disposable cutlery or plastic bottle caps from beaches. The creators Martijn Lukaart and Edwin Bos sought help from students at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands to develop an algorithm that teaches the robot to distinguish between different types of waste.
“It’s nice to develop a robotic solution, but that’s not the solution to the larger problem,” said Bos. “Behavior has to change and our goal is to get people to interact with and engage with the robot to make it smarter, but also to learn about the effects of garbage itself.”
A BeachBot prototype has been used in several locations in the Netherlands and the two entrepreneurs say they are ready to bring the product to market. The next challenge is to find the right business model to ensure that BeachBot not only cleans, but also educates the public and changes behaviors.
Despite recent efforts, much more is needed to curb plastic pollution in the oceans, concluded Bellous Paper. Plastic production and waste are generated faster than inventing to reduce it. According to some calculations, it would take about a century to remove 5% of the plastic currently in the oceans with just cleaning equipment.
“We focused on what we see because what we see bothers us,” said Bellou. “But there are still so many gaps that need to be filled.”
Laura Millan writes the newsletter for the climate report on the effects of global warming.
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