Big problems sometimes need extraordinary solutions. Plastic pollution and its devastating effects on the ocean are no exception - but there is hope. While we work together in our homes, schools and stores to make small changes, enormous international efforts are being made to find lasting solutions to clean up the damage that has already been done.
Let's see what the world's leading inventors, scientists, engineers, biologists, programmers and economists are doing to end the plastic crisis for good:
The Ocean Cleanup
The Ocean Cleanup is an ambitious project of young entrepreneur Boyan Slat, to deploy massive trash collecting buoys in the ocean gyres to gather the huge amounts of plastic that have collected there. This project can remove 50% of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage patch in just 5 years by their estimate.
This has seen much enthusiasm and successful crowdfunding - already successfully launching and testing several prototypes. Using data gathered from these prototypes, the first full-sized version of their system is currently under construction.
The Ocean Cleanup's first buoy, System 001, is expected to launch later this year in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where the strong ocean currents in the gyre will aid in the rapid collection of waste. If all goes to plan, the project will be scaled up to other ocean gyres by 2020.
A project of this scale is not without criticism about its cost, viability and potential harm to marine life, but with such an accelerated timeline, and incredible public support, it will be interesting to see what comes of this over the next few years. We are optimistic!
Plastic hunting drones
Drones are cool, right? But, plastic-seeking drones are even cooler! The Plastic Tide is an organisation generating an open-source map of the ocean's plastic pollution that can be used to see where the worst buildups are and monitor the effectiveness of other cleanups.
Currently, they are working with citizen scientists in the UK to calibrate their artificial intelligence through a process called machine learning - where the computer literally learns to recognise plastic. Once this process is done, a small army of camera-equipped drones will be used to monitor the coasts.
Locally, a trash collecting drone invented by Capetonian Richard Hardiman called the RanMarine WasteShark is undergoing testing in the Netherlands, Sweden, India, USA, UAE, Australia... and right here in the V&A Waterfront.
The goal of the WasteShark drone is to assist human patrols of ports and harbours by collecting floating waste. It can be controlled by remote or with pre-assigned routes and collects up to 200 litres of waste at a time. The final product will also be capable of measuring a wide variety of water parameters, adding value to the drone beyond simply collecting waste.
Plastic eating microbes
Plastic is made from long, chain-like molecules called polymers. Polymers are common in nature - silk, protein, starch, cellulose, collagen and even your DNA, and plenty of natural processes have evolved to break these molecules down and release their energy. However, Earth's bacteria, fungi and animals have a difficult time digesting artificial polymers in plastic - or so we thought.
Researchers at the University of California have identified an enzyme, called aromatic polyesterase or PETase, which is able to digest highly processed PET plastic. This research is based on the recent discovery of a previously unknown naturally occurring bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, by Kyoto University. The discovery of this bacterium was significant because the only other known plastic-eating microbe was a fungus called Pestalotiopsis microspora, which was difficult to cultivate and thus not the solution to plastic pollution.
Recently, a University of Portsmouth team accidentally improved this bacterium's plastic-eating ability. When modifying the PETase enzyme to better understand how it worked, they created a version of the bacteria that was even better at digesting plastic.
It is hoped that a combination of genetic engineering or controlled mutation in lab-grown bacteria, mixed with an increased use of bio-based PET alternatives, such as FDCA, will make bio-degradation of plastic in landfills and recycling plants a viable way to break down plastic waste, and possibly even reuse the energy and chemicals produced as byproducts.
The "circular economy" is a concept championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Our existing resource economy has a simple flow: 1) We "take" the resource. 2) We "make" the product. 3) We "dispose" of the product. And then we start again with new raw materials.
Circular economies would institute materials loops, where products are designed in such a way that they are intended to be reprocessed, recycled or reused and injected back into the product cycle at the beginning - eliminating the "dispose" component. Products that already demonstrate this principle in South Africa include glass bottles, shipping pallets and milk crates - but ideally, this would be extended to everything from chip packets to yoghurt tubs.
Currently, nations are working on setting measurable standards to assess the move towards circularisation of economies, with the British Standards Institution having designed the first ever assessment standard, called BD 8001:2017.
The International Coastal Cleanup
The International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) is a project of the Ocean Conservancy and has become one of the world's largest volunteer events.
Since the first of these cleanups in 1986, this event which had small beginnings on a beach in Texas has now spread to more than 150 countries. To put that in perspective, in 2017 the ICC attracted almost 800 000 volunteers who collectively picked up 20.8 million pieces, weighing 10 million kilograms, of plastic waste off of the world's beaches.
What makes the ICC a truly international collaboration is the effort put into collecting data and statistics from each cleanup through their CleanSwell app. Every piece of waste is compiled into an annual report that breaks down the findings by country and provides data on the top litter items found. For example, in 2017, more than 2.4 million cigarette butts were collected and enough balloons were found to lift a great white shark!
Packa-Ching is a Cape Town-based initiative of Polyco, with a pilot project currently underway in Langa offering community members the chance to trade separated recyclable waste with a truck that visits their community regularly. These goods are exchanged in return for points on a "KiloRands" card, which can be used at any store.
Another pioneering solution to plastic pollution, currently operating in Brazil, Haiti and the Philippines, is The Plastic Bank. The Plastic Bank sets values to recyclable goods and then connects large recyclers to local-level entrepreneurs, who in turn offer a cryptocurrency called Social Plastic as a reward to people who bring them recyclable goods. This Social Plastic can, in turn, be traded as a normal currency, or exchanged for goods with retail partners who may once again offer discounts to encourage recycling.
The Plastic Bank's currency "Social Plastic" is blockchain based, like Bitcoin, meaning that it cannot be stolen and the system cannot be cheated. What this does is empower both the sellers of the collected plastic and the buyers to be secure regardless of their location as there is no cash changing hands.
A very new project that we have our eye on is LitterCoin, a service that allows people to "mine" cryptocurrency by exploring the environment and adding information about the presence of pollution to OpenLitterMap. It is hoped that this will incentivise people to collect scientific data that will further scientific understanding of where waste is, how it moves and where it comes from - and thus aid cleanup programmes.
The Seabin Project is a Spanish-Australian initiative that has invented a product called as "Seabin." Seabins are essentially large, floating rubbish bins that can move with the waves and the tide and suck up floating waste that passes them. Seabins are designed to be anchored in marinas and harbours where they can be easily emptied.
With the latest iteration of the Seabin, inventors claim that it can collect microplastics as small as 2mm, and even remove some of the oil and polluting chemicals in the water that passes through this. It is claimed that in an average marina, each Seabin could collect up to half a ton of debris a year. Several ports in the world are now using Seabins with positive results!
This is exciting because it is an accessible technology that can be easily installed in harbours, river mouths and marinas from where a lot of plastic waste enters the ocean.
Exciting citizen science apps
CleanSwell (Android | iOS) is the official app of the Ocean Conservancy. It allows you to track each litter item you collect on beach cleanups and contribute this data to the global community. Have some fun - use the app to create teams amongst your friends, classmates or family and see who collects the most trash during a beach visit.
Project AWARE's Dive Against Debris app (Android | iOS) is a great tool for scuba divers, freedivers and snorkellers to keep track of their dives, as well as pollution encountered and entangled wildlife spotted. A great way to add extra value to a hobby that many love.
Other apps that are gaining popularity internationally are Litterati (Android | iOS), Marine LitterWatch by the European Environmental Agency (Android | iOS) and Endangered Waves by Nik Strong-Cvetich (Android | iOS).
Mr Trash Wheel
The Baltimore Inner Harbor Water Wheel, informally known as Mr Trash Wheel, is a trash-collecting device that collects floating debris at the mouth of the Jones Falls River. Mr Trash Wheel certainly also wins for having the best personality of all trash collection options.
Baltimore, like most cities, deals with the issue of plastic pollution being washed into the ocean and rivers by stormwater drains. Mr Trash Wheel uses a scooped water wheel to lift litter out of the water and drop it into a dumpster. It has already collected more than 500 tons of waste in its roughly four years of operation.
This wheel has been so successful, that is has been joined by two family members - Prof. Trash Wheel and Captain Trash Wheel. New trash wheels are planned at other major river sites in Indonesia, Panama City, Rio de Janeiro, Honolulu, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Denver.
Know of any amazing initiatives that we've missed? Leave a comment below and we'll investigate!