Robots are cleaning our oceans , harbours and rivers . However , as COP26 draws closer , the innovators behind these nautical drones and trash interceptors say that no matter how much they clean , it ‘ s only politicians who can make a real change .
And change needs to happen . Plastic is a key driver of climate change . The plastic industry is one of the most greenhouse gas intensive industries in the world . By 2050 , its carbon burden could reach over 56 gigatons , which is about 13 % of the entire remaining carbon budget , according to a report from the Center for International Environmental Law . The carbon budget is the amount of extra carbon the planet can tolerate before tipping global warming over 1 . 5 degrees .
However , the problem doesn ‘ t stop once the balloons , buckets , baby bottles , tyres , food containers , TVs and other plastic products have been produced . A lot of it , eight million tons per year to be exact , ends up in our oceans .
Plastic makes up for 80 % of all marine debris from surface waters to deep – sea sediments . Thousands of fish , birds and other maritime species meet their end every year entangled by the waste . Others eat it and are then eaten in return until microplastics inevitably end up in humans .
Plastic pollution of the ocean also contributes to global warming . The degradation of plastic in our waters has been linked to the production of greenhouse gases , which contribute to climate change .
Mr Trash Wheel
It got worse every day . For 20 years , John Kellett walked to his job as the director at the Baltimore Maritime Museum . Walking across a footbridge , he saw first – hand how plastic cups , bags , cigarette butts , bottles and other man – made detritus floated into Baltimore Harbor en route to Chesapeake Bay .
“ That ‘ s not where the trash comes from ,” Kellett explains . “ When it rains , it gets washed down from the streets , the parking lots , the alleys – [ if it ‘ s ] anywhere on land within the watershed , [ it ] gets washed down into the storm drains and into the small creeks and then into the bigger waterways , on into the harbour and , eventually , into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean .”
But recognising the cause of the illness meant that he could administer a cure . Kellett realised that by intercepting the rubbish in the river , he could prevent it from slipping into the harbour and further out into the Atlantic .
However , Kellett also recognised that the rippling currents that the rains created also presented him with an opportunity . By harnessing the power of the flow , the only thing he ‘ d really need was some way of collecting the waste at the mouth of the river .
Having first jotted down the initial concept on a cocktail napkin at a party , he approached the city with his idea . They liked it . After securing funding from a local foundation , he built his prototype , which was first tested in 2009 .
Its design is reasonably simple . It is a semi – autonomous rubbish interceptor that is powered by a mix of solar and hydro power . The googly – eyed mollusc – shaped fifty – foot – long machine weighs nearly a hundred thousand pounds .
Two booms are attached to the front of Mr Trash Wheel to funnel the debris into the mouth of the machine . An electronic rake places the detritus on a conveyor belt . Once the rubbish gets to the top of the belt , it is dumped into a dumpster sitting on a separate floating barge . Thanks to an onboard internet connection , Kellett and his team members are also able to monitor the entire process on their smartphones .
Despite its reasonably simplistic design , Mr Trash Wheel has become a local attraction . The googly – eyed trash interceptor is the theme of a public festival and local breweries have named beers after it . Mr Trash Wheel even has its own Instagram account and a semi – secret society of fans called The Order of the Wheel.
The invention has also spawned a family of four wheels around Baltimore , with the additional members of the family having been named Captain Trash Wheel , Professor Trash Wheel and Gwynnda the Good Wheel of the West .
Picking up pythons
To date , the Mr Trash Wheel family has collected over 1 , 600 tons of trash and debris . That Includes over 12 million cigarette butts , 1 . 3m foam containers , a guitar , 5 , 300 + sports balls , over 1 . 2 million plastic bottles and one living ball python , which the team spotted on Mr Trash Wheel ‘ s camera monitor and subsequently rescued .
“ One of the beers is actually called Mr. Trash Wheel’s Lost Python Ale, commemorating the day that the trash wheel picked up and saved a python ,” Kellett laughs .
When not saving escaped African reptiles , Kellett ‘ s team is busy working on extending the wheel family to Texas , California and Panama . They are also in the early stages of investigating the fundraising capabilities of setting up trash wheels in New York City and in San Francisco .
“ I can actually not believe that this little idea that I made the model of in my basement with stuff I had lying around , turned into this ,” Kellett chuckles . “ People have permanent tattoos of trash wheels . I still can ‘ t believe that . I mean , I love the trash wheel as much as anyone , but they ‘ ve really generated a fandom for it . And I think it ‘ s fantastic and am really humbled by it .”
Robots cleaning the oceans everywhere
Mr Trash Wheel may be one of the most high profile ocean – cleaning robot initiatives out there , but it ‘ s not alone . A quick Google search reveals a plethora of similar projects . There are crab-like robots designed by BioRobotics Institute researchers to clean the ocean floor . And there ‘ s Jotun Hull Skating Solutions, whose machinery cleans ship hulls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut fuel costs .
Other companies , like Hong Kong – headquartered ClearBot , have designed nautical drones that drive around inside harbours to clean up marine plastic waste . These robots essentially work as water – based Roombas , although they are cleaning up an area much bigger than your average house .
There ‘ s even the robot devised by the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non – profit , which bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Trash Wheel in the sense that it is also deployed at the mouth of rivers and funnels debris into its mouth . The Ocean Cleanup ‘ s founder , Boyan Slat , has previously said that his team drew inspiration from everything that went before , including Mr Trash Wheel .
The main difference is that the Ocean Cleanup claims to be designed for serial production and deployment , with Slat aspiring to deploy his interceptor across 1 , 000 rivers by 2024 , according to the New Yorker. It is also 100 % solar powered .
Ocean-cleaning robots are not enough
Firstly , they are great for environmentalist propaganda – the good kind . As made evident by Mr Trash Wheel ‘ s popularity , robots , drones and rubbish interceptors can help raise awareness about the problem without being too preachy about it .
“ If I ‘ m collecting waste , that ‘ s great ,” Gupta says . “ But in the long term , I ‘ m helping [ the government ] improve the waste management system on land , prevent leakage , and basically encourage policy that understands what kind of waste is entering the water .”
Mr Trash Wheel provides an example of this . Since the family ‘ s inception , they have collected over a million styrofoam containers . This fact was one of the contributing factors behind Baltimore introducing a styrofoam ban in 2019 .