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. WikiTribune investigates the different technologies used to tackle plastic pollution.
Robots can go to 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.
There is the robot called “FRED” (Floating Robot for Eliminating Debris), by its’ developer, the startup Clear Blue Sea (CBSea), described as “a large, unmanned, semi-autonomous, ocean-faring robot, powered with renewable energy, designed to clean up floating debris” from marine environments. This robot is currently a prototype beetling around off the coast of San Diego, California, 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 he has found.
WasteSharks are a series of robotic solutions designed to clean up coastal waters in the most important marine zones. One of the robots has been released at a harbour in Ilfracombe, Devon, UK, 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 company RanMarine Technology™.
The robot developed by The Ocean Cleanup focuses on the five main garbage patches in the 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 however present all kinds of unassessed 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. Supporting the reduction of plastic straws and single-use plastics, it encourages the use of better, recyclable materials.
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, repurposed, or reused, as a study by an international team of scientists higlights.
Communities across Africa are developing new approaches to waste management and consolidation: the plastic waste is transformed into retail products, turning tyres into shoes, upcycling plastic bottles, and making plastic bags into children’s schoolbags.
Small scale innovation
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, the UK supermarket 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.
A “most comprehensive” survey among eleven suoermarkets in the UK and seven grocery retail chains conducted by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace UK documents to which extent they are contributing to the plastic waste problem, and which actions they are taking to deal with it.
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 vegetal 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.
The “Ecoffee Cup” was created in 2014 with the intention to cut down the number of single-use “paper” cups. 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”. The “Frugal Cup” is a single-use coffee cup which can be recycled with paper, according to The Telegraph. This outlines that there are a variety of avenues to tackle the world’s plastic problem.
The consumers’ part
The Earth Day Network shows what the consumer can do to reduce the plastic waste.