White sandy beach with plastic litter forming the word STOP

Harnessing artificial intelligence, blockchain, and drone tech to aid ocean cleanup efforts

  • Sustainable Coastlines is using AI to clean up New Zealand’s beaches
  • The Plastic Tide Project uses drones to detect ocean plastic
  • The Plastic Bank allows people to exchange plastic waste for blockchain tokens
  • The Ocean Cleanup wants to use giant floating rigs to capture ocean plastic
  • Can technology help us clean up the world’s oceans?

Oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface. They play a crucial role in regulating the global climate and produce approximately half of the world’s oxygen. They’re also home to millions of animal and plant species, including some of the largest and oldest living animals on Earth. Besides plants and animals, a large portion of the human population depends on them for survival as well. Unfortunately, oceans have come under serious threat in recent years, mostly as a result of human activity.

An infographic showing the scale of ocean pollution.
It’s estimated that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently floating in the world’s oceans, with another 8 million tonnes of plastic waste added to it every year. More than 80 per cent of ocean pollution can be attributed to human activity.

In fact, human activity is responsible for more than 80 per cent of ocean pollution. Unsurprisingly, plastics turned out to be the greatest threat to the preservation of the marine environment. According to the ocean scientist Marcus Eriksen, there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently floating in our oceans. Furthermore, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that an additional 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans every year.

While there’s been some success in terms of raising public awareness about the seriousness of this issue in recent years, it hasn’t had a noticeable impact on the amount of plastic waste that’s dumped in the ocean. On the contrary, due to rapidly growing plastic production, low recycling rates, and poor waste management, this problem is expected to get even worse in the future. Rather than waiting for humanity to come to its senses, researchers around the world have been looking for ways to clean up the oceans before the damage becomes irreversible.

Sustainable Coastlines is using AI to clean up New Zealand’s beaches

Sustainable Coastlines is a non-profit organisation in New Zealand dedicated to educating, motivating, and empowering individuals and communities to clean up and restore their marine environments. Founded in 2009 by Camden Howitt and Sam Judd, the organisation recently won a grant from AI for Earth, Microsoft’s $50 million, five-year initiative that aims to give individuals and organisations around the world who are working to protect our planet access to artificial intelligence technology. “This kind of initiative is exactly what our planet needs – something simple, but effective, that can easily be adopted at [a] grass-roots level to make a difference, empowering every community to keep their environment clean and make the world a better place for future generations,” says Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith.

In the ten years following its foundation, Sustainable Coastlines has managed to remove tens of millions of individual pieces of trash from shorelines around New Zealand and the Pacific, enough to fill nearly 45 shipping containers. Once removed from the beach, the trash is logged and categorised in a comprehensive database. Unsurprisingly, 77 per cent of the items retrieved were single-use plastics. Now, as part of the grant, Sustainable Coastlines will join forces with Enlighten Designs, an innovative tech company that’s working on developing a national litter database that will use AI to track how ocean cleanup efforts are progressing and produce valuable data and insights. This will allow Sustainable Coastlines to identify the sources, causes, and solutions to their problems. “We can’t improve what we do not measure. Our charity has been collecting data on this for 10 years. This is a new, scaled-up, scientific approach, focused on working closely with communities around the country,” says Hewitt.

The Plastic Tide Project uses drones to detect ocean plastic

The brainchild of Peter Kohler, an explorer and tech enthusiast, the Plastic Tide Project uses AI-powered drones and machine learning technology to create a map of the plastic pollution problem in the UK. “Plastic Tide aims to use tech, machine learning and citizen science to build a scalable local and global monitoring solution to this problem of marine litter,” explains Kohler. Drones equipped with cameras are first sent to fly above coastlines and take thousands of aerial photos of beaches, which are then used to teach an AI algorithm to distinguish between images that represent plastic trash and those that portray fish, jellyfish, or seashells.

The idea first came to Kohler while he was traveling along the South Pacific in 2008 and noticed the amount of plastic trash just floating around in the water. “It was everywhere, although we were miles from anyone. When you’re sailing in the middle of nowhere, it really gets you wondering where this litter comes from and how it gets here. I came back to England and spent the next few years puzzling over how best to answer that question,” says Kohler. To improve the algorithm’s accuracy, the Plastic Tide team needed to gather as many images of plastic trash as possible, which is why they turned to the public for help and launched the Marine Litter DRONET, where people from all over the world can upload images they captured themselves. Members of the public are also encouraged to visit the organisation’s website and help the team tag items that appear in the images.

In its current form, the system can be used to direct cleanup efforts by identifying areas most affected by plastic waste. As the algorithm becomes smarter with time, the team hopes they will eventually be able to track the spread of plastic almost in real time, monitoring not just the coastlines, but also everything that connects to the sea, including the sea surface, seafloor, rivers, roads, and highways. This would also allow them to discover which companies are most responsible for the problem and see whether environmental policies have any effect on it.

The Plastic Bank allows people to exchange plastic waste for blockchain tokens

Founded in Vancouver, Canada, in 2013 by David Katz and Shaun Frankson, the Plastic Bank is an economic development firm that aims to use blockchain technology to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the ocean and help alleviate poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries. The Plastic Bank currently operates in Haiti, Indonesia, Brasil, and the Philippines, where it’s established recycling infrastructure that allows residents to exchange any type of plastic for digital currency or other goods.

Residents are encouraged to bring the plastic waste they collect to one of Plastic Bank’s stores, where it’s weighed and the corresponding value is deposited into an online account that can be accessed through a blockchain-based banking application and used to buy anything in the store. “We’ve monetised waste and in our stores you can pay for school tuition, medical insurance, access to pharmaceuticals, Wi-Fi, cell phone minutes, sustainable cooking fuel, high-efficiency stoves and we continue to race to add everything that the world’s poor need and can’t afford all available now using plastic garbage as payment,” explains Katz. The collected plastic is later recycled into ‘Social Plastic’, which is then sold to one of the Plastic Bank’s global partners and used to make new products.

The Ocean Cleanup wants to use giant floating rigs to capture ocean plastic

The Ocean Cleanup is a Netherlands-based non-governmental organisation that develops technology designed to clean up the world’s oceans. Founded by a young Dutch entrepreneur called Boyan Slat in 2013, the Ocean Cleanup has managed to attract $30 million in funding, in part owing to claims that its technology will be able to remove 90 per cent of ocean plastic by 2040. After years of testing, the organisation launched its first full-scale prototype named System 001 in September 2018 and sent it to work on cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The prototype is a 600-metre-long, U-shaped floating rig designed to passively collect and retain plastics from the ocean as it moves around powered by ocean currents and winds. It consists of floating booms made of a high-density polyethylene tube and three-metre-deep skirts of woven polyester that hang beneath it and trap particles floating below the surface. Unfortunately, the prototype didn’t work exactly as it was intended and broke a few months after it was launched. As it turned out, the floating rig was unable to retain the plastic it collected due to a speed difference between the system and the plastic, causing the plastic to float back out into the ocean.

That didn’t discourage Slat, though. The organisation went back to work and quickly returned with a second prototype, System 001/B, which managed to solve the problem and is successfully catching plastic of all shapes and sizes, including microplastics as small as 1 millimetre. The solution was to use a parachute sea anchor to slow down the system, allowing it to catch faster-moving plastic debris. The team also increased the size of the cork line to reduce overtopping and allow the system to capture and concentrate plastic.

Can technology help us clean up the world’s oceans?

It can’t be overestimated just how important oceans are to all life on Earth. They provide the food we eat, the oxygen we breathe, and help govern our climate and weather patterns. Unfortunately, human activity has brought this ecosystem to the brink of disaster, threatening not just the preservation of millions of plant and animal species that call it home, but also the livelihoods of a large portion of the human population. In an attempt to address this issue and save the oceans before it’s too late, researchers around the world are increasingly turning to technology for help.

Technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, drones, and blockchain have recently emerged as a potential solution to the ocean pollution issue. However, they haven’t done much to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans year after year, as rapidly growing plastic production, low recycling rates, and poor waste management continue to take their toll. While trying to find a way to clean up trash that’s already out there is something worth striving for, it will be just as important to focus our efforts on preventing plastic from reaching our oceans in the first place. To achieve that, we need to find a way to raise public awareness and educate the public about the importance of the marine environment. It’s the only way to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy everything the ocean provides.

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