Marine pollution is one of the biggest environmental challenges the world is currently contending with. Marine debris consists of a wide range of materials, with plastic being one of the biggest culprits. Marine debris originates from both sources on land (e.g. beach/land-based litter that blows into the ocean, and plastic that flows into the ocean via rivers) and sources at sea (e.g. garbage from ships, and discarded fishing gear). Since plastic is designed to be extremely durable, it doesn't readily break down in the environment. This poses a real problem to marine life, which can become entangled in it and drown, or can mistake bits of plastic for food, leading to a slow and painful death.
The good news is that there are a number of promising initiatives underway to clean up our oceans, many of which are using innovative ocean cleaning technologies to restore ocean health. Let's look at some of these in more detail.
The Ocean Cleanup originally deployed System 001 (since upgraded to System 001/B) in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the hopes of removing more than half of the plastic that has accumulated in these gyres within 5 years. This innovative device was developed by Boyan Slat, a Dutch inventor. It consists of a giant floating boom that acts as a surface barrier and flotation device, and a skirt that dangles deep down into the ocean waters below, trapping bits of plastic and channeling them into a retention funnel for collection. The system is carried through the ocean by natural forces (waves, currents and wind), moving in the same direction as the plastic debris it is designed to capture. A large submerged parachute helps to slow the device down, allowing faster moving bits of plastic to drift into it. The next phase of the project is to upscale the current 160 meter (525 foot) test system to a 600 meter (1,969 foot) version (System 002), which the Ocean Cleanup hopes to deploy by 2021, ultimately aiming to launch a fleet of 60 such devices.
The Seabin Project, an Australian startup, has developed the Seabin V5 to collect trash floating on the surface of calmer waters such as harbors, yacht clubs and marinas. This floating trashcan is essentially a surface skimming device that works much like a pool filter. Water is sucked through a filter that is fitted with a bag which traps any debris (as well as toxic oily surface contaminants) that may be present as it passes through, while the clean filtered water is pumped back out. The Seabin can trap around 3.9 Kgs of floating debris per day or 1.4 tons per year, including tiny microplastics as small as 2 mm. The pilot project — which was launched in Sydney harbor, Australia, between July 2109 to July 2020 — yielded a whopping 28 tonnes of marine debris, with 4.3 billion liters of water being filtered for microplastics, oil and other petroleum-based fuels. The Seabin Project team is currently working on the design of Seabin V6, which will be manufactured from recycled fishing nets.
Mr. Trash Wheel & The Interceptor
Mr. Trash Wheel (designed by Clearwater Mills LLC) and The Interceptor (designed by The Ocean Cleanup) are two similar technologies that are designed to remove trash from rivers and ports before it gets into the ocean. Mr Trash Wheel effectively operates like a floating water wheel, which (backed up by solar panels) generates electricity that powers a giant conveyor belt which brings the trash funneled into its booms and raked into its mouth onto a floating barge, where it is dumped into a dumpster for recycling. Like Mr Trash Wheel, The Interceptor, is a floating barge that collects trash via a conveyor belt system; but instead of a water wheel generating electricity, it is fully powered by solar. Both these innovative technologies can make a huge contribution to preventing trash from entering the ocean in the first place.
The WasteShark, developed by RanMarine Technology, is an automated or manually operated (radio controlled) water drone that can be deployed to collect trash floating on the surface of a waterbody. The WasteShark, whose design is based on the whale shark, has a large 'mouth' that gulps up plastic and other surface pollutants as they float by. Each unit can remove up to one ton of debris a day. It is also effective at eradicating invasive aquatic plants from the surface of waterbodies, as well as recording water quality data such as salinity and pH.
FRED, short for Floating Robot Eliminating Debris, is the brainchild of the Clear Blue Sea, a non-profit organization based in San Diego, and their student intern partners. According to the creators, the design is based on existing technologies and is similar to (but smaller than) the conveyor belt collector systems powered by solar used by Mr Trash Wheel and The Interceptor above. The difference is it is large solar powered robot built on a stable catamaran hull that is specifically designed to be deployed in the ocean rather than rivers and ports. It is deployed from a mothership and controlled by a mission control station aboard the mothership, to which it returns to offload its haul for recycling. FRED is fitted with pinging devices to keep marine wildlife at bay. It is anticipated that the pilot project currently operating in San Diego harbor will be expanded to include a fleet operating in the waters around Hawaii over the next two years, and globally from 2023 onwards.
While there is a desperate need to cleanup our oceans, we also need to focus on preventing it from being polluted with debris and toxins as well as on developing environmental-friendly and sustainable technologies. Innovative design can make a positive contribution. For example, the Kualuah brand is a wetsuit and swimwear brand that is taking marine conservation seriously. All our products are made from limestone neoprene which is much more environmental-friendly than the traditional oil-based neoprene fabric. We also donate a portion of our sales to marine conservation projects and organizations that focus on protecting our oceans.
How can you help protect ocean health?
We can all do our bit to reduce the amount of plastics entering the ocean. Start by trying to eliminate, or at least reduce, your dependence on plastics. From eco-friendly wetsuits and swimwear to bamboo toothbrushes, there are many sustainable alternatives out there. Try to make a conscious effort to choose these wherever you can.