Plastic waste is a global issue and scientists are creating innovations to help combat the problem. Their expertise in areas such as microbiology, material science and robotics is enabling the fight. We investigate the different technologies used to tackle plastic pollution.
Robots can go places people can’t – including marine environments. They don’t get tired or complain during the endless task that is ridding the world of plastic waste. It’s no surprise that they’re in the forefront of innovative approaches to the cleanup operation.
Robots like FRED, a giant, unmanned, semi-autonomous, ocean-faring robot, powered with renewable energy that is designed to clean up harmful floating debris from marine environments. This robot is currently a prototype beetling around off the coast of San Diego but is planned to be released globally within the next five years. It is powered solely by solar panels so contributes no further pollution when out at sea gathering litter. FRED can collect debris up to one metre long, and when he is full, he goes back to the Mothership to offload the waste it has found.
WasteSharks are a series of robotic solutions designed to clean up coastal waters in the country’s most important marine zones. One of the robots has been released at a Devon harbour, eating its way through 15.6 tons of waste every year. The creators say it emits no pollution and poses no threat to local wildlife. The WasteShark has already been launched in five countries since its creation by Dutch environmental technology company RanMarine.
The Ocean Cleanup robot focuses on the five main garbage patches in our polluted seas, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California. This one patch alone holds 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. If this operation was rolled out across the globe (with a fleet of approximately 60 systems), scientists expect it could clean 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years.
The system deploys a 600-metre-long floater that sits at the surface of the water with a tapered 3-metre-deep skirt attached below. The floater provides buoyancy to the system and prevents plastic from flowing over it, while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath. The floating cleaner moves its position based on the wind, waves and current to trap as much trash as it can – every few months the rubbish that accumulates is collected.
What better way to get rid of unwanted plastic than feed it to microorganisms that love to eat it?
Some scientists believe there are already natural microbes eating plastic in our oceans. The amount of plastic we see in the sea is much less than the total amount of plastic calculated to have been piled and poured into it. It is possible that some has bio-degraded faster than expected however not nearly enough to explain the ‘missing plastic’.
Scientists have recently discovered a strain of bacteria that can eat the plastic used to make bottles. Using direct enzyme spraying – or microbes engineered to deliver environmentally active enzymes – widely in the sea may present all kinds of un-assessed hazards.
The improvement made by scientists makes natural enzymes more efficient at doing the job nature intended.
Another way to reduce plastic waste is by replacing plastic with paper and cardboard straws. Many hospitality businesses have begun to replace their plastic straws with either paper or bio-degradable plastic straws in efforts to reduce ocean pollution. Unfortunately bio-degradable plastic straws are no different from regular plastic straws. Bio-degradable plastic is built to bio-degrade in compost conditions and not in the sea leaving the same result if they end up there. Many companies have taken to selling re-usable straws usually made from bamboo and metal. Dior has even jumped on the bandwagon and are now selling re-usable gold plated glass straws.
Upcycling and recycling
Land-based waste entering the ocean has been a significant problem in Africa. This waste mismanagement is associated with a lack of environmental infrastructure in many African countries. But a shift is happening from a linear take-make-dispose model, to a more circular approach with plastics recycled, re-purposed, or reused.
Communities across Africa are developing new approaches to waste management and consolidation: the plastic waste is transformed into retail products, turning tyres into shoes, up-cycling plastic bottles, and making plastic bags into children’s schoolbags.
A straightforward solution is to change the colouring used in some plastics. Ready meals are often sold in black plastic trays. Manufacturers use them because they make food look more appealing for consumers. The use of black plastic causes problems for the machinery at recycling plants. The electronic detectors use near-infrared radiation to sort materials; however, this black plastic does not reflect therefore isn’t recycled.
Many popular supermarkets have jumped aboard a plastic pact and promise to further reduce the amount of single-use plastics they use.
Since 2010, Morrisons has reduced the weight of packaging used across its Market Street counters by 50% (10,000 tonnes).
Last year Morrisons also took some steps towards trying to improve their plastic usage. They began to allow customers to use their own containers at meat and fish counters. The supermarket went through all of its brand products to identify, reduce and remove any unnecessary plastic packaging; this included eliminating plastic from the fruit and vegetable isles.
Waitrose has also cut back their packaging by almost 50% and have been doing so since 2009. They claim that they are aiming to make all of their own-brand planet-friendly packaging by 2023.
ASDA have set themselves up with some long-term goals, not only to prevent plastic pollution but to protect the environment on a whole. They claim that they will have 100% recycled packaging by 2025, 100% sustainably sourced fish, to be deforestation-free by the end of 2020, to have 90% of our operational waste recycled or sent for anaerobic digestion and to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. ASDA are taking a large amount on board but their goals are still very far away.
More studies show that Tesco, Aldi, Co-op, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Iceland and M&S are also putting schemes in place to tackle plastic waste.
Small Businesses tackling the issue
Another answer to the problem may be to use a different form of packaging instead of plastic. The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has created a compostable multi-layer material from agricultural and forestry by-products. The packaging is made up of nature’s resources making it environmentally better than plastic as it’s renewable and biodegradable. This material can be used to store goods such as muesli, nuts and cheese and would help control the total amount of plastic food packaging wasted.
It is not only important for big retailers to reduce their single-use plastic production, but small businesses are also now encouraged to do the same.
“Ecoffee Cup” was created in 2014 with the intention to cut down the number of single-use “paper” cups. Over the years the amount of paper waste per person has increased from 40kg to 560kg each year. Disposable paper cups used by coffee shops all over the world, contain 5% polyurethane plastic which makes the composting and recycling of these disposable cups difficult. Ecoffee Cup is encouraging people to purchase reusable cups instead, that will in turn reduce this amount of waste.
Critics say that reusable cups may be limited by their practicality. Martin Myerscough, founder of Frugalpac, told The Telegraph, “the take-up’s very low – the consumer wants something that’s easy”.
Frugalpac created “Frugal Cups”, a single-use coffee cup designed with two elements, a recycled paperboard outer and a food-grade PE liner, which can be recycled as separate elements, offer a great alternative to the current cups used in coffee shops. This outlines that there are a variety of avenues to tackle the world’s plastic problem.
What can you do to help?
There are many things that you can do to reduce your plastic waste, and the smallest things can make the biggest difference.
Reducing your personal plastic waste will always help, ask yourself how much you consume on a weekly basis and can it be cut.
Bamboo and metal straws are now sold everywhere so if you’re worried about keeping your lipstick intact pop one in your handbag for the evening. Try to avoid single-use plastics buy investing in a reusable water bottle and/or coffee cup, you’ll feel better for it after I promise. Refuse a plastic straw before your bartender has a chance to pop one in your cocktail.
Have a look at what you’re buying, it will tell you in print if what you are purchasing is recyclable or not.
Remove litter and place it in a bin instead of watching it float down the street. There are also many community ocean clean-ups that are more than happy to welcome volunteers.
Innovative technologies have helped to reduce plastic waste over previous years; however, it is a problem that needs to be solved at the source rather than after production. Technologies are helping the problem, but they cannot necessarily fix the problem alone.