A Seabin at work in one of the Great Lakes
By REBECCA REDELMEIER
Waste capture devices collect thousands of pieces of trash in the Great Lakes each day. Can they also motivate humans to stop putting waste in the water in the first place?
In the murky waters of Lake Ontario just off the Toronto harbor, a stream of trash inches toward a round, tubular-looking device floating in the water. A piece of white styrofoam bumps up against the device’s lip. Then, in one fluid motion, it tumbles over the edge. With tendrils of marine plants circling the waste, it looks like the styrofoam could have entered a portal to an undersea world. Instead, the device is a gateway to a less mystical — yet vital — destination: the garbage dump.
“It’s basically like a floating trash can,” says Chelsea Rochman, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto, who has worked with a team at the university to capture trash in Lake Ontario with bins like these since 2019. Powered from shore, the device, called a Seabin, uses a motor to create a vortex that gently pulls in floating waste from a 160-foot radius and then stores the trash in an attached basket.
Across the Great Lakes, which stretch from Duluth, Minnesota, to the border between the United States and Canada in northern New York, dozens of Seabins now work alongside stormwater filters in a cross-border project dubbed the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup. In mid-September, they were also joined by aquatic waste-collection drones and beach-cleaning roving robots — all to remove some of the 22 million pounds of plastic that enter the lakes each year and help researchers like Rochman understand the Great Lakes waste problem.
People can’t remove waste 24 hours a day like the devices can
“We know that the amount of litter we have out there needs more power than the people power that we have,” Rochman explains. Though local groups have organized beach cleanups for decades, people can’t remove waste 24 hours a day like the devices can, nor can they pick up the tiny pieces that machines are able to capture.
Standing on the shore of Lake Ontario, with Toronto’s streetcars rattling by, Rochman points out the overflowing municipal trash bin along the sidewalk — one of several sources of the trash. Municipal sewage systems, industrial spills, stormwater runoff, recreational boating and beach waste, and agricultural debris all wind up in the lakes as well. In one bin, toothbrushes, tampon applicators, dental flossers, shoe strings, eyeglasses, food scraps, and syringes are entwined in the tendrils of marine plants. Between the leaves, tiny flecks of plastic poke out.
Continue reading… “How a fleet of robots could help solve the Great Lakes plastic pollution problem”