Microplastics have been entering the environment and the oceans since the plastic revolution following World War II. However, only within the last two decades have they been brought to light with new technology capable of detecting and recovering them and with the exponential growth of the plastic industry. This issue has become widespread, with microplastics being found in nearly every body of water and even being found in ocean sediments in the Mariana trench, the deepest location on Earth. To address this issue, many companies and organizations have developed technology that aims at removing microplastics from the ocean without harming marine life.
The Microplastic-Sensing Autonomous Underwater Vehicle
The Microplastic-Sensing Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), a collaboration between Sprout Studios and Draper is a technology that has been developed to combat microplastics in the ocean. Unlike the AL3K, the purpose of this drone is not to cleanse the ocean of microplastics, but rather to assess the concentration of them in different parts of the ocean. To do this, the drone operates in three essential steps.
1.) The Microplastic-Sensing AUV travels several feet below the ocean's surface filtering microplastics from the water
2.) When it has collected a certain amount of microplastics, the AUV sends data about the microplastics along with its GPS coordinates to laboratories.
3.) Scientists analyze this data and use it to help in developing a Plastic Particle Pollution Index similar to the World Air Quality Index which will provide accurate data about concentrations of microplastics in bodies of water around the world.
The Hoola One
The Hoola One, a beach microplastic vacuum developed by students of the University of Sherbrooke in Canada has been designed to tackle the microplastic issue more directly. The Hoola One vacuums sand from beaches and uses a specially engineered system to remove microplastics from the sand. The microplastics collected are retained within the machine for proper disposal, while the filtered sand is returned to the beach. The Hoola One has proven to be an effective way to cleanse beaches of microplastics, though it is limited in the fact that it cannot filter microplastics directly from seawater.
The WasteShark by RanMarine is another innovative technology targeted at plastic collection. It is an aquatic drone whose main purpose is to collect buoyant plastics and other trash from boat harbors . The Wasteshark is designed to navigate autonomously through boat harbors to collect garbage, which it deposits in a specific receptacle for proper disposal. While being an effective technology for keeping boat harbors clean, the WasteShark has a very limited range and can only gather floating macroplastics.
Each of these technologies have been engineered to combat the growing issue of microplastics in our ocean, but each of them have one limitation: the collected plastics still exist. They may be disposed of properly in a proper garbage receptacle or even recycled, yet whether they end up in a landfill or in a store as a new product, the likelihood is high that they will end up back in the environment where they will continue to have a harmful impact. This led us to develop the A.L. 3000, an autonomous underwater drone which collects microplastics from the ocean and degrades them via plastic-digesting bacteria.