Nature and Biodiversity

The Great Lakes are awash in plastic. Can robots and drones help?

The BeBot sand-sifting drone with Meijer branding.

Microplastics have been found in samples from all 29 of the Great Lakes’ river tributaries. Image: GreenBiz

Elsa Wenzel
Senior Editor, GreenBiz
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Plastic Pollution

  • Roughly 22 million pounds – or 10 million kilograms – of plastic enter the Great Lakes of North America each year, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology.
  • This threatens the health of 137 native fish species, including lake trout, walleye and bass, as well as the humans and other creatures that eat them.
  • But 2 robot-like drones are now being deployed to filter plastic particles from sand and water.

Robot-like drones are roaming popular Great Lakes beaches in an effort, backed by $1 million from Meijer supermarkets, to filter plastic particles from sand and water while drawing attention to plastic pollution.

A sand-crawling BeBot and a swimming PixieDrone sparked curious stares and questions among passersby at a Muskegon, Michigan, shoreline in August. The machines are conversation starters, for sure.

"A lot of people don't know that there is a plastics challenge or problem in the Great Lakes," said Mark Fisher, CEO and president of the nonprofit Council of the Great Lakes Region, which received Meijer's donation in the sprint it’s leading to develop the litter-fighting technologies. "And so this is an important tool for raising awareness. But we're also talking about what actions we can take together to make sure that plastic never becomes waste or litter in the first place."

Some 22 million pounds of plastic enter the five nation-sized lakes each year, according to modeling by the Rochester Institute of Technology. That threatens the health of the 137 native fish species, including lake trout, walleye and bass, as well the humans and other creatures that eat them. Petroleum plastics are inherently unhealthy if ingested, but they concentrate other pollutants, too.

Microplastics, which studies suggest are more highly concentrated in the Great Lakes than in the oceans, have been found in samples from all 29 of the lakes’ river tributaries. They include fragments of many types of plastic objects as well as microbeads, once used as scrubbing agents in toothpastes and facial cleansers, and microfibers from polyester and other synthetic fabrics.

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Although the eight futuristic machines traversing 18 beaches and marinas in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin through October won't zap the onslaught of plastics flowing into the Great Lakes, their ability to turn heads belongs to a larger strategy to encourage a circular economy in the region, involving corporations, nonprofits and government bodies in both the U.S. and Canada.

Great Lakes, great problem

When it comes to marine plastic pollution, oceans with their Texas-size garbage patches have made splashier headlines than lakes. And like the fine sands of my beloved Midwestern beaches, Great Lakes plastic waste tends to be tinier and less eye-catching than on ocean coastlines.

"We have this sort of universal experience that happens for a lot of our Adopt-a-Beach volunteers," said Jennifer Caddick, a spokesperson for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, which leads employee-engagement beach cleanups sponsored by corporations, including Meijer. "For the most part, they look around and they say, 'Oh, it doesn't look too bad,' and they're oddly kind of disappointed: 'There's not much for me to do.'" Once they start, however, they find lots of tiny trash, like fragments of snack wrappers and foam coolers, she added. "And the one thing that every time we hear from volunteers is, 'Now I can't unsee it, like everywhere I look when I go to the beach, there's plastic."

An image of tools used by Alliance for the Great Lakes beach cleanup volunteers.
Tools used by Alliance for the Great Lakes beach cleanup volunteers. Image: GreenBiz

In 20 years of the nonprofit's beach events, more than 200,000 clipboard-toting volunteers have amassed nearly a half-million pounds of waste, eight in 10 pieces of which are plastic. It's a rising problem for the Great Lakes, which provide drinking water to 40 million people and offer 10,000 square miles of shores. Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario hold about 21 percent of the planet's freshwater — and 84 percent of North America's — an increasing draw for Western climate refugees fleeing parched reservoirs and seasonal wildfires.

The wicked problem of plastic in the Great Lakes needs systemic solutions. How much more plastic could be kept out with a little help from some robot friends? First, here's how the machines work.

Mee the BeBot and PixieDrone

To be precise, both the BeBot and PixieDrone are operating as drones in this Midwestern effort because they're controlled by hand remotely rather than running in their their autonomous, robot modes.

The BeBot has been compared to a Roomba, but instead of a vacuum it contains a sifter with a vibrating screen. It's meant to traverse 3,000 square meters per hour, about two-thirds of an acre, sifting 4 inches deep and 51 inches wide and navigating 20-degree inclines. Combining battery power and solar panels, the BeBot rolls along at less than 2 miles per hour on an electric charge that lasts three hours. Once it fills up with about 25 gallons worth of debris, it's manually emptied, and the contents are sorted for potential recycling. The BeBot’s maker, Searial Cleaners, emerged from Poralu Marine, a Quebec-based company specializing in ship and barge repair.

The PixieDrone is the equivalent device for the water, using a camera and Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) to filter out about 42 gallons worth of surface objects. It can travel about 7 miles on a 6-hour charge at the same speed as its partners, handling 3-foot waves. The PixieDrone resulted from a partnership with Searial Cleaners and RanMarine, an Amsterdam-based company whose WasteShark device mimics the gaping mouth of the whale shark.

As a compulsive mom who can’t stroll a beach without stooping for snack bar wrappers, balloon strings and cigarette butts, anything that picks up garbage without straining a back is appealing. However, the devices only gather about a leaf litter bag's capacity of debris on a battery charge. A small team of humans might collect more plastic than a robot in the same time frame.

Local and state parks departments have cleaned up beaches for years by hand or with help from machines pushed by hand or pulled by a diesel tractor, whose mechanisms the BeBot imitates. H Barber and Sons, for example, founded in the 1960s and based in Connecticut, sells its beach-cleaning machines in 90 countries.

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Searial Cleaners is angling for its BeBot and PixieDrone to be used as janitorial tools for beaches, marinas and golf courses, and the BeBot offers ample room for company branding. The equipment emerged from the mission of the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup (GLPC) to harness new technologies against litter. The effort is a partnership of the Council of Great Lakes Region with Pollution Probe, which coined the phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" in the 1970s, as well as the Canadian federal government and the province of Ontario. The GLPC describes having collected more than 74,000 plastic pieces from four lakes, except for Lake Michigan, since its founding in 2020. The program also uses other devices including the Seabin, which sits in water and sucks in trash, and the Enviropod LittaTrap filter for stormwater drains.

Techno-pessimism

However, high-tech fixes to remove plastics from waterways are pretty much a lost cause, according to Mark Benfield, a professor in oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University. For instance, he has criticized the Ocean Cleanup, whose corporate partners include Maersk, Coca-Cola and Kia. The nonprofit, founded by a teenage Boyan Slat, may ensnare sea creatures in a well-meaning but futile effort to thin the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to Benfield.

The GLPC maintains that remote, human operation of the BeBot and PixieDrone prevents harm to wildlife, and that their surface cleaning of water and sand mostly won’t disturb creatures at deeper levels.

An infographic showing plastic collected by the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup since 2020
Plastic collected by the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup since 2020 Image: GreenBiz

Benfield won’t rule out a future invention of something like a plastic-hungry microbe, but he sees unintended consequences even there and little reason for optimism. In other words, the plastic in our freshwaters is here to stay.

"Once it's in there, it's very difficult to get it out," he said of microplastics, including synthetic fabric fibers, which swirl in waters at the same size as plankton. "Any kind of net that you would use that is fine enough to collect that stuff will clog almost instantly with all sediments. So you know that the solution is not to get it out of the oceans, it's to stop it getting into the oceans and the lakes."

Benfield is hopeful, however, that academic researchers examining the trash collected by the eight Midwestern drones will at least yield valuable data about microplastics in the region. "That said, if they're cleaning up the beaches and they have a concerted effort to educate people to provide trash collection and removal services for this waste, and they've got these robots that are out there getting the public's attention and focusing it on the problem, then that's probably not a bad thing," he added.

More about Meijer

Where does Meijer's million-dollar donation to the Council of the Great Lakes Region’s foundation fit in with its sustainability strategy? Erik Petrovskis, Meijer's director of environmental compliance and sustainability, described the robot and drone launches as being part of the company's broader efforts to halve CO2 emissions by 2025, slash food waste, support a circular economy and serve as stewards of the Great Lakes.

In addition to the drones, Meijer funded Frog Creek Partners' GutterBins, which collect debris at Meijer parking lots. The retailer also has created green infrastructure to improve water quality discharge from store parking lots in Benton Harbor and Traverse City, Michigan. "The beach cleanup project is the gem in that portfolio," Petrovskis said. "Putting in subsurface infrastructure doesn't get a lot of attention, but they're both critically important in protecting the Great Lakes."

The company, which runs more than 240 "superstores" in six states, has a number of other efforts to reduce plastic waste, including a goal for its own brand packaging by 2025 to be 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable. Meijer is developing a Scope 3 emissions inventory to better understand its suppliers.

Meijer's in-store recycling program collected more than 6 million pounds of plastic film in 2021 to be upcycled into furniture and other products. A demonstration project last year pelletized the plastic from a million plastic bags and added a binding chemical made by Dow to the asphalt to create durable pavement, recycled polymer modified asphalt (RPMA), at a Holland, Michigan, store. In addition, Meijer is a member of the Beyond the Bag effort, from Closed Loop Partners' Center for the Circular Economy, to rethink single-use shopping bags.

Prevention, prevention, prevention

"The problem is us — people leaving stuff at the beach as they go," said Caddick of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "It’s windy, there’s chaos; it happens. But it’s also things like litter washing off the land because raccoons got into the trash bag and it washes in."

At the same time, the petrochemical industry has historically shifted the blame for its products' harms onto individuals while ramping up production of fossil fuels and the plastics derived from them. The greater weight for plastic pollution lies on industry rather than on consumers, according to chemist Sherri Mason, whose research on microplastics in freshwater helped lead to a federal ban on microbeads. "There is so much waste that consumers never see that is associated with all the shipping of product components and products themselves before they make it onto the store shelves," said Mason, director of sustainability at Pennsylvania State University at Behrend. "Not to mention the reality that for many, many items, consumers don't have a choice but to purchase plastic."

The effects on industry of sweeping new single-use plastics bans in large markets, including Canada and California, remain to be seen.

In the war against plastic pollution, the enemy easily takes cover. Scientists have only a sliver of data about the scope and scale of the problem in the Great Lakes. Lightweight consumer waste tends to float to the surface, but how much heavier, industrial debris is lurking at deeper levels?

Everyone I engaged for this story agreed that preventing plastic from reaching the water is the key, including Sarah Lowe, coordinator for Great Lakes marine debris at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Its five-year action plan includes removing 500 tons of plastic from Great Lakes environments by 2025, identifying the best methods in addition to advancing research, guiding policy and expanding public awareness.

"If you think about an overflowing sink, it is obvious that the first step before cleaning up the water is to turn the faucet off," she said in an email. "By working to prevent marine debris, we can stop this problem from growing."

Great Lakes circular economy

Toward that end, the Council of the Great Lakes Region, through its Circular Great Lakes program, advocates for a three-part strategy to tackle plastics in eight states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York — plus Canadian provinces Ontario and Quebec. Partners include Meijer, Dow, the American Chemistry Council, nonprofits including Pyxera Global and universities including Northwestern University.

The CGLR's June report, A Great Lakes Circular Economy Strategy & Action Plan For Plastics, describes removing existing pollution as a top priority. Next is changing and modernizing systems for capturing and recycling waste. That hinges not only upon improving infrastructure and boosting the amount of material collected but also on building stable markets to drive recycled material into the economy. The initiative seeks for the region to expand its 18 percent plastic packaging recycling rate from last year to 50 percent by 2027.

Finally, the effort prioritizes improving regulations across North America to enable a circular economy to take hold, reducing reliance on virgin plastics. A mixed bag of measures can include extended producer responsibility, bottle bills and landfill bans, and engaging consumers helps as well, added Fisher of the Council of the Great Lakes Region, who praised the 2020 national Save Our Seas 2.0 law, which created a Marine Debris Foundation with a “genius prize” for waste solutions, and provides $65 million through 2025 for local recycling and waste management efforts as well as wastewater infrastructure efforts.

"We want to invite all companies, representing different parts of the value chain, to add their perspective in terms of how [we can] create a more circular economy in the region and do so in a way that maintains their competitiveness, creates good jobs and protects the environment at the same time," he said.

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