Sep 28, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Beach cleanup goes high-tech

The BeBot, left, is a beach-cleaning robot; the Pixie Drone, right, works on waterways.

The BeBot, left, sifts through sand to remove plastic waste and other debris. The PixieDrone, right, is a sort of Roomba for floating waste. Photos courtesy of Searial Cleaners

Plastic-munching robots, floating drones and other "smart" contraptions are starting to ply beaches and waterways, systematically removing dangerous debris left by summertime revelers.

Why it matters: Not only are these futuristic technologies highly effective in scouring the areas they patrol, they're also eye-catching novelties that focus public attention on the growing problem of plastic waste, particularly in oceans.

  • They're likely to become more common sights — but for now, they tend to be very expensive, limiting their deployment.

Driving the news: In early experiments, a new generation of high-tech cleaning devices has been deployed to cull plastic, cigarette butts, cotton swabs and other trash from the Great Lakes, Lake Tahoe and select Florida beaches.

  • Running on solar or electric power, the emissions-free devices offer a newfangled alternative to the old-fashioned community trash cleanup.
  • Some target larger bits of debris, while others are able to remove dangerous microplastics from the water.

"The number of technologies coming into market has really expanded considerably," said Melissa De Young, director of policy and programs at Pollution Probe, an environmental nonprofit. "And that's thanks to the attention that plastic pollution has had in the media and from government initiatives."

The Great Lakes are at the vanguard of experimentation. Thanks to private donations, government grants and gifts like $1 million from Meijer supermarkets, a flotilla of cutting-edge contraptions has been deployed:

  • The latest are the BeBot, a $55,000 beach-sifting robot that collects the waste buried in a defined area, and the PixieDrone, a $33,000 floating Roomba that works autonomously or by remote control.
  • Also in use are the Seabin (a floating trash bin for marinas), the LittaTrap (a catch basin that sits inside a storm drain) and the Gutter Bin stormwater filtration system — devices that cost between $700 and $10,000 each, said Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region.
  • Beach cleanup data shows that nearly 80% of the material washing up on the Great Lakes is plastic, Fisher said.

"We certainly want to try and test out other technologies that might be out there," Fisher tells Axios.

  • "Each in their own right are very effective, but we also know that these technologies are not going to solve the larger problem, which is how do we forge a future without waste?"

Where it stands: The Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup, launched in 2020 by Pollution Probe and the Council of the Great Lakes Region, is focused both on cleanup technology and raising awareness of the plastic waste problem.

  • Highly visible cleaning gadgets "are important for having those critical conversations with coastal communities and policymakers," Fisher said.
  • When people see devices like the BeBot in action, it sparks their curiosity and gets them concerned about the issue — children in particular, De Young said.

What they're saying: "When our partners use our technologies, straightaway they have people coming to them asking about how it works," said Gautier Peers of Searial Cleaners, a French company that makes the BeBot and the PixieDrone.

  • "It's a great way for them to educate and inform families, especially kids, about the plastic pollution crisis," he said. "It convinces them to change their consumption habits as far as plastic is concerned."
  • The BeBot has been used to clean beaches in South Lake Tahoe and all around Florida, raising awareness in those areas.
  • Searial Cleaners also makes the Collec'Thor, a trash-trapping waste bin that sits at the water's edge, and InvisiBubble, a bubble curtain that captures small waste particles.

What's next: Peers acknowledges that the high cost of Searial's devices is a limiting factor, but says growing attention to beach and ocean pollution is helping galvanize governments, nonprofits, corporations and individuals.

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