Photo by Day Donaldson. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Can Technology Cure Ocean Litter?

7 revolutionary technologies set out to clean the ocean.

In the sub-tropics of the Pacific Ocean, far past the distant horizon, there’s an island made of the most unexpected material — garbage. And it’s only growing every year. So much so that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The collection of litter in the Pacific Ocean has come to be known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Photo by NOAA’s National Ocean Service. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Not only is the trash a danger to wildlife when ingested or tangled in it, but plastics also contain toxins that are absorbed by animals and passed down to humans through the food chain.

This has led several innovative groups of inventors and environmentalists to combat the 165-million ton problem of ocean litter by exploring some amazing new technology. Here are a few of the most recent proposals.

  1. Ocean Cleanup Project
Ocean Cleanup artist impressions by Erwin Zwart/The Ocean Cleanup

Young environmentalist and entrepreneur Boyan Slat has founded one of the biggest ocean cleanup projects yet. Named, simply, Ocean Cleanup. The technology is some of the most simple proposed so far.

Instead of using boats, nets or any mechanical parts to catch and collect ocean debris, the Ocean Cleanup project utilizes a floating, V-shaped barrier that acts as a sort of trash fence in the ocean. The barrier itself is made of a fine screen, rather than netting, which corrals litter and lets ocean life swim freely underneath.

It functions using only the power of the ocean’s rotational currents. The 100-km project is projected to clean almost half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within 10 years.

The Ocean Cleanup Project began as a crowdfunding project and after being fully funded, has moved on to the prototyping stages. The young company plans to launch a pilot test off the coast of Japan in 2017.

2. Protei

Prototype of Protei developed by a team in Vietnam. Photo by
Gabriella Levine
. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Environmentalist and Entrepreneur Cesar Harada noticed a problem with the way we clean up ocean debris after the BP Oil Spills of 2010. Our cleaning processes were inefficient; Using 700 re-purposed fishing boats, we were only able to clean 3% of the 4.9 million barrel spill.

This led him to develop Protei, an open-source hardware, 100% flexible sailboat that works with natural weather patterns and renewable energy to clean up pollution like oil, plastic and radioactivity in the most efficient sailing paths possible.

Instead of a rigid body and single centerboard and rudder, the flexible design allows the entire boat to change shape, become a point of control and move effortlessly in an S-shape pattern through waves, with little resistance or turbulence.

Harada chose to make this technology open source to amplify and increase innovation. The project, while now only 6 years old, has developed its 10th prototype and a fleet of remote-controlled sail boats across the planet. Find its open-source hardware plans below.

3. Floating Horizon

Illustration by Floating Horizon. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

At the center of Floating Horizon is a sustainable-energy powered drone that skims the ocean’s surface to collect and analyze ocean litter. Each skimmer is powered completely by solar and tidal energy, allowing it to explore the ocean for years at a time.

While its creators have estimated a number as great as 4,000 units would be required to actually clean the ocean, the technology is providing valuable insights to researchers in the mean time.

The device collects debris from the ocean and performs analysis to determine what types and at what concentrations pollutants currently exist in our waters.

4. Clearwater Mills’ Water Wheel

Photo by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

You don’t have to wait to see the results of Clearwater Mill’s Water Wheel; it’s already in action in Baltimore Harbor. The solar-powered water wheel funnels floating trash onto a conveyor belt, which rakes the litter from the surface into a bin for disposal.

This device is now available for purchase, and the company hopes to expand its use to other cities. While there are no plans yet for using the Water Wheel at sea, the technology plays an important role in stopping litter at its source, before it reaches the ocean.

It’s only the first run of product from Clearwater Mill, but already, the garbage collector removes 20 tons of waste each month and circulates 20,000 gallons of water per hour, simultaneously cleaning the water and adding much-needed oxygen back into the system.

5. Seabin Project

The Seabin Project jumped into media attention as it surpassed its $260,000 goal in the final hours of its crowdfunding campaign. The technology is set out to clean the ocean one harbor at a time.

The Seabin acts as a pool skimmer or aquarium filter on the ocean’s surface. An underwater pump draws floating garbage, like plastic bags, bottles and cans, over the edge of a canister, which water filters through a mesh bag before being returned to the ocean.

While functioning on a much smaller scale than the other projects on this list, the project is exciting because it tackles not only litter in the ocean but also floating pollutants like oils and detergents.

6. Seawer: The Garbage-Seascraper

The Seawer is the brain-child of South Korean designer Sung Jin Cho for the eVolvo Skyscraper Competition. While not likely to come to life any time soon, the design proposal is one of the interesting projects to be given airtime simply because of its scope. The project would function as an all-in-one water filter, desalinization facility, recycling center, hydroelectric power plant and residential area.

The project would install a 550-meter diameter and 300-meter deep, floating drainage hole in the center of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It would function similarly to the Seabin, only on a much larger scale. The rim of the drainage hole would skim floating plastics from the ocean’s surface. Plastic collected from the water would be transferred to the Seascraper’s upper level where it would be recycled.

While the lower levels contain all the machinery to keep the structure going, the upper level allows for farmland, forest and sanctuary for migratory birds.

7. Plastic Republic

A group of biology and engineering students at the University of London has taken a different approach to ocean litter. Instead of fighting the battle against pollution with technology, they’re prepared to fight it with nature.

The goal of the project is to collect plastic from the ocean and biologically glue it together using bacteria. The larger clumps of plastic can then be more easily collected or, as the project’s namesake, be turned into massive floating islands to create artificial habitat.

Specialized strains of Escherichia coli and marine bacteria Roseobacter denitrifican and Oceanibulbus indolifex would identify microscopic plastic particles in the ocean and cause them to either stick together or degrade.

Enomad is an eco-concious group of engineers, designers and explorers devoted to expanding energy around the world while leaving only only footprints. Information about our portable, hydropower generator for backpacking and hiking can be found here. To follow more of our adventures, find us on our blog, Facebook or Twitter.

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