• Cigarette butts are the most common and problematic types of beach litter, polluting marine environments with plastics and harmful chemicals.
  • Robot litter picker, the BeachBot, uses AI to detect trash and help clean up beaches.
  • Plastic makes up most of the waste found on beaches and can harm animals which may get entangled, injured or swallow it.

It seems many people leave behind more than just sandcastles when they go home after a trip to the beach. Beach litter is a recurring issue, and it is damaging our coastal environments and wildlife.

And there is one small item that is causing a big problem: cigarette butts. They may only be a few centimetres long, but they are full of microplastics and toxic chemicals that harm the marine environment. They don’t easily decompose, and when they come into contact with the water, harmful substances can leach out.

Unfortunately, they are also the most common type of litter, with an estimated 4.5 trillion discarded annually.

On the hunt for trash

Using an artificially intelligent robot, two Dutch entrepreneurs are helping clean up some of the problem. The BeachBot is a specially designed machine that can identify and remove small items of litter from beaches. It uses image recognition to find butts in the sand and picks them up.

a picture of the BeachBot on a sandy beach
The BeachBot uses AI to find and pick up cigarette butts on beaches.
Image: ProjectBB

An accompanying app is also helping the robot get smarter. When it can’t identify litter with certainty, the robot takes a picture which the public can then identify, helping it learn for the future. The public can also help train the bot by supplying their own images of trash.

In this way, the BeachBot is also helping collect data and improve our understanding of the problem.

The bot has already been in action on a number of beaches in Holland, helping with clean-up projects.

a picture of the MAPP robot displaying its ability to move its wheels across uneven terrain
The MAPP robot can gather litter data in parks and on beaches.
Image: ProjectBB

And the designers are now working on a new project – the MAPP detection robot. These robots are designed to work in outdoor spaces like parks and beaches, mapping and collecting litter data. They are able to communicate with one another to collaboratively hunt for trash.

The plastic problem

Marine litter harms wildlife, which can become entangled in it or ingest it, causing injury, drowning or suffocation. It is also a problem for coastal communities which rely on clean beaches for tourism, fishing and recreation.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without a healthy ocean - but it's more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean 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 organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

As well as trash being left behind by beach visitors, beach pollution is also caused by plastics and other non-biodegradable waste being discarded into rivers and streams, eventually making its way to the ocean.

a pie chart showing what the majority of waste on the beach is made up from
Plastic makes up the majority of litter found on many beaches.
Image: Ospar

Most of the litter found on beaches is plastic, making up nearly 90% of all waste on some beaches, according to OSPAR, which monitors litter on beaches in the north-east Atlantic.

This plastic takes years to degrade, with researchers estimating that 8 million tonnes of it ends up in our ocean each year.