- The ocean is estimated to contain at least 86 million tonnes of plastic waste, as well as chemical and other pollutants.
- Fishing debris turned into sunglasses and deep sea robots collecting pollution data are some of the innovations that could help clean up our seas.
- Sustainability is high on leaders’ agenda as nations and businesses consider whether ‘green growth’ will form part of COVID-19 recovery plans.
But the problem is inspiring innovators to create ingenious solutions – both to capture and repurpose marine plastics, and to measure the scale of pollution in new ways.
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And the need for such ideas is acute: a study undertaken by the World Economic Forum and partners has found that – without action – by 2050, the weight of plastics in the ocean could be greater than the weight of fish.
1. Upcycling plastic waste
They call it ‘ghost gear:’ the estimated 640,000 tonnes of old fishing ropes, lines and nets that’s discarded or lost every year. According to Greenpeace, it’s one of the ocean’s worst forms of plastic pollution because of its powers to ensnare almost anything, from crustaceans to whales.
What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?
Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without healthy oceans - but they're more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.
Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.
The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.
Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.
Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.
Ocean Action Hub reports on two ventures that are trying to turn this waste into something useful. California-based startup, Bureo – which has found a way to turn this waste into desirable products including skateboards and sunglasses – is literally closing the net on the problem.
2. Underwater robots
This September, what could be the future of shipping will cross the Atlantic: a fully autonomous craft called the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) – named in honour of the boat that carried English settlers to the New World 400 years ago.
Using AI and ‘research pods’ from the University of Plymouth, the solar-powered MAS will run experiments to monitor sea mammals and marine microplastics.
It’s not just the MAS team who are exploring new ways to collect ocean data. Terradepth, a start-up based in Texas, US, has created what sounds like a vision from science fiction: a fleet of autonomous underwater robots. The company hopes to demonstrate its technology this summer.
While Terradepth robots are likely to be hired for a range of mapping and scanning purposes, they also promise to help customers “make informed, ecologically responsible decisions regarding the world’s ocean.”
What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?
More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.
The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.
In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.
It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.
Read more in our impact story.
3. Plastic dams
Some of the most effective ways of capturing plastic waste are as far from robotics as you can get. One such solution is ‘biofencing’. This can be as simple as plastic bottles meshed together to form barriers that trap waste – often other plastics.
The waste can then be disposed of properly at recycling plants – and provide an income for local people.
One of the most successful solutions has been in Guatemala – 60% less waste reached the sea after the country created biofences.
How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this
UpLink is a digital platform to crowdsource innovations in an effort to address the world’s most pressing challenges.
It is an open platform designed to engage anyone who wants to offer a contribution for the global public good. The core objective is to link up the best innovators to networks of decision-makers, who can implement the change needed for the next decade. As a global platform, UpLink serves to aggregate and guide ideas and impactful activities, and make connections to scale-up impact.
Hosted by the World Economic Forum, UpLink is being designed and developed in collaboration with Salesforce, Deloitte and LinkedIn.
4. Waste drones
Not all waste can be captured by biofencing. In more congested settings like harbours and ports, devices like the WasteShark are arriving. This water-based drone – created by Dutch technology company, RanMarine – hoovers up plastics as well as biowastes and other debris.
Designed to operate mainly in waterways, the WasteShark allows customers to monitor the marine environment, and “create an accurate picture of the water’s DNA over time”.
The drones can carry up to 200 litres of waste, can operate in swarms, and return periodically to pods where they charge themselves.
5. Plastic bag campaigns
More than 100 nations have now banned plastic bags, with Africa one of the most committed continents. Some of the campaigns that led to bans have started small and were years in the making.
In 2018, the Indonesian Island of Bali banned single-use plastic bags. The move was due in large part to a long campaign by two teenage sisters from the country who have since gone on to inspire others around the world.
In 2013, Melati and Isabel Wijsen, then aged just 10 and 12, founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags – an NGO with a mission to fight the island’s plastic pollution problem. Today, Bye Bye Plastic Bags is a global movement, with 50 teams around the world educating tens of thousands of schoolchildren about the problems of plastic waste.
The World Economic Forum's Virtual Ocean Dialogues takes place from 1-5 June. You can follow it here.