Plastic bottles drifting in the sea; bags in the stomach of turtles; Covid-19 masks dancing in the waves: Few images are as unpleasant to watch as those showing the contamination of our oceans. And few environmental issues are so urgent and so present in the public consciousness. “Most people have an emotional connection to the sea. They see ocean pollution as an attack on a place they desire,” said Nikoleta Bellou, marine scientist at Hereon Coastal System Institute – Analysis and modelization. Between 1990 and 2015 alone, an estimated 100 million metric tonnes of mostly plastic waste entered the oceans. For this example, the study is part of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which began this year to focus on sustainable use of the seas.
The new General Survey is the first to document the major part of the existing solutions – technologies as well as methods – concerning prevention, monitoring and cleaning with an innovative approach. With a view to the future, Nikoleta Bellou and with an international team, namely Camilo A. Arrieta-Giron, João Canning-Clode, Chiara Gambardella, Konstantinos Karantzalos, Stephanie Kemna, Carsten Lemmen and João Monteiro, have categorized and analyzed solutions around the world. Under the supervision of Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon, participating co-authors included the National Research Council of Italy, the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, the National Technical University of Athens, the Smithsonian Institution and Maritime Robotics .
Explore all categories
The team looked at all categories and looked at everything from crowdfunding projects to research databases. Scientists have studied nearly 200 solutions that plan to use drones, robots, conveyor belts, nets, pumps or filters, depending on whether they will be cleaning in coastal areas, at sea or on the ocean floor.
To date, many developers have used similar technological approaches, but it looks like the next generation will increasingly rely on a wide variety of solutions. Increasingly, they will integrate machine learning, robotics, automation, big data analytics and modeling. While the scientific community seems to focus primarily on surveillance and NGOs primarily focus on prevention, most cleaning solutions result from the cooperation of different actors, the study says.
Yet most projects never get past the development stage. Very few solutions have become a technological reality or have been launched commercially. The authors of the study stress the need to overcome the planning stage and to think through many problems until the end. “The integration of solutions into political directions should be pushed politically in order to establish a future industry,” Bellou said. Based on research and data collection, the analysis reveals how scattered and difficult to access this information can be. Most of the solutions – around 60% – were primarily focused on surveillance and developed over the past three years.
The study addresses the limits of existing solutions as well as the challenges of developing new ones. It also makes recommendations for political action. In addition to international cooperation between researchers and national environmental departments and agencies, scientists recommend defining standards for each solution, such as assessments based on compatible size, efficiency and ecological footprint. This enables the creation of new funding programs that further develop existing and new solutions, using a global database. “It is a way to encourage researchers as well as policy makers to create a sustainable approach to harnessing marine litter. We want to leave clean oceans for future generations,” said Nikoleta Bellou.
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