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Floating vacuum cleaners

June 4, 2020

reading time: 8 minutes

by Simon Usborne, guest author

Plastic sea ocean

Innovative projects attempt to clean up our oceans. Is this even feasible or does the only solution lie with the consumer?

From time to time, tragedies befall animals in the oceans that bring home the scale of a problem it can be otherwise hard to process. Think of the flesh footed shearwaters off the coast of Australia, whose chicks were found to have ingested as many as 40 jagged pieces of plastic before they had even flown their nests. Like whales and other sea creatures, the birds mistake plastic for food. Scientists found one older bird with 260 alien objects killing it from inside, including bottle tops and pen lids.

While news stories and big-budget documentaries do vital work in putting faces to the toxic effect of plastics in our seas, even the well-meaning consumer could be forgiven for greeting the horrifying images with a degree of fatalism. How can we hope to reverse the tide?

It’s hard enough to picture the quantity of plastic in the sea, more than 80% of which originates from dry land. According to estimates, 12 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans each year.
Yet the huge attention this pollution has earned in recent years has spurred into action corporations and innovators, triggering a race to find solutions – and a debate about what they should look like.

Boyan Slat The Ocean Cleanup
A big C: This is what Boyan Slat's solution for our oceans looks like. Image: The Ocean Cleanup

Late last year, a Dutch scientist tested a giant floating device design to target the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling island of rubbish that is bigger than France. Boyan Slat launched a 600-metre floating tube in the shape of a giant C. It moves with the ocean currents but a sea anchor slows it slightly, forcing debris to collect in the skirt under the boom. Periodically a support vessel comes to pull out the waste.

Slat plans to develop the cleanup project further to include larger devices working in a fleet, financing the operation by selling retrieved plastic to recycling plants. His project has won investment from Danone, among others, the corporation behind brands including Evian, which has helped finance separate interceptor devices. Designed to sit in rivers and other waterways, these use a similar skirt to guide waste towards a solar-powered floating garbage vessel, which securely contains the waste before it reaches the ocean.

Trond Lindheim SpillTech CleanSea robot
Trond Lindheim, founder of SpillTech, and his CleanSea Robot. Image: SpillTech AS

Using technology developed for combatting oil spills, Norwegian company SpillTech has created a range of devices also designed to intercept plastic on its way to the seas. Its Clean Sea Robot, meanwhile, is a smart autonomous vessel that uses remote sensing and cameras to find and consume waste on the water’s surface. Think a giant floating Roomba.

But plastic retrieval – particularly in the deep ocean, where particles quickly sink beyond the reach of skimming devices – is a fraught business. Slat’s floating tube got a huge amount of media attention and millions in investment. There was, after all, a huge appetite for a solution. But several oceanographers have questioned the scalability – and efficacy – of such a system, while also expressing concerns that the cleanup project has shifted attention from the bigger problem: the source of all that plastic.

Prevention or healing?

Slat would agree with their contention, at least in part - that cleaning up the blood is less vital than staunching the wound. Devices in rivers go some way to shifting the focus upstream. And any attempt to remove plastic from natural habitats is worthwhile. But the root cause of the problem is modern living, and the extent to which plastic is tied into it.

“I don’t think there’s realistically a way you can get the plastics out of the ocean,” Chris Cheeseman, an ocean waste expert at Imperial College London, told the Telegraph last year. “What we’ve got to do is stop them getting in the ocean in the first place.”

Plastic environment sea ocean
Who is responsible for the plastic in the ocean? Image: The Ocean Cleanup

Yet even if some fatalism is justified when we look at the plastics already in the sea, halting the flow is not proving easy. There is a debate, for example, about the balance of responsibility between the consumer and the corporations still pumping plastic into our lives. Is it enough for individuals, perhaps moved by scenes of marine destruction and suffering, to change their behaviour and drive change in supply chains and manufacturing? Or should governments place greater pressure on the corporations, and incentivise them to make change from the top?

In the end, whales, birds – and the array of imperilled ocean life – will depend on both things happening. And if Slat and innovators like him can continue to devise ways to tackle at least part of the existing problem, the creatures of the deep will thank them. In the meantime, they will continue to ingest the products of our convenience.

Corporate responsibility

The topic of plastic is not the only environmental problem the world is currently struggling with. If we do not manage to massively reduce our CO2 emissions in the coming years, experts expect serious consequences for humankind. Our society is therefore facing major challenges. LGT is convinced that everyone must fulfill their social and corporate responsibility and make a contribution to a livable future. LGT is doing this in various areas – you can see here which ones.

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