How innovation can help solve the microplastic problem in our water systems

How innovation can help solve the microplastic problem in our water systems

From aquatic Roombas to pollution-zapping gadgets, new tech offers novel ways to tackle pollution in our lakes, oceans and reservoirs.

Last summer, a pair of odd vessels could be found patrolling Toronto’s Outer Harbour Marina. They weren’t boats, however. More like supersized aquatic Roomba vacuum cleaners, these autonomous drones were specially designed to suck up trash floating in the water. PortsToronto launched the two drones (named Ebb and Flow courtesy of a crowdsourced campaign) as part of an effort to clean up the harbour and prevent plastic detritus from clogging our waterways.

Each WasteShark, which has the capacity to remove the equivalent of nearly 500 kilograms of waste from the water in a day, can be operated either autonomously or via remote control. “I’ve driven one,” says Jessica Pellerin, media relations officer for PortsToronto. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty user friendly. It’s a little like playing a video game.” In just three outings last summer, she notes, the drones collected more than 19.1 kilograms of trash.

Although Ebb and Flow are just part of a small pilot project, they’re aiming to tackle a massive problem: all the discarded plastic in our waterways. It is estimated that more than 10,000 tons of primarily plastic waste from the U.S. and Canada wind up in the Great Lakes every year. And that’s just the tip of the (polymer) iceberg: According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, our oceans accumulate more than 14 million tons of plastic annually. The United Nations estimates that the amount of plastic entering aquatic ecosystems could exceed 25 million tonnes per year by 2040.

Plastic is already a known health hazard, as it may include toxic chemicals, such as fire retardants and dyes that can accumulate in our bodies. But scientists are also expressing worries about the risks posed by microplastics, tiny particles that are barely visible to the human eye. OceanCare, a nonprofit devoted to marine conservation, suggests that at least 5 trillion of these miniscule fragments can be found on the ocean’s surface alone — that’s about 270,000 tonnes by weight, on par with more than 2,000 blue whales (the world’s largest animal).

“One of the biggest challenges is that everyone has heard of microplastics, but there’s a lack of awareness around the size and the scope of the problem, and the scientific evidence is just starting to emerge,” says Macarena Cataldo-Hernandez, co-founder and CEO of Viridis, a Vancouver-based startup with a focus on water treatment.  “We’re finding microplastics in literally every part of our bodies, and this stuff is not going to be good for us.”

In some cases, simple strategies can help cut down exposure. While tap water around the world is riddled with microplastics (researchers have found the pollutants in 80 percent of the samples collected from 14 different countries), a new study suggests boiling and filtering may get rid of as much as 90 percent of those particles. But the magnitude of the problem calls for more extensive interventions — which is why innovators are looking to tackle it on the water, on land and even at its source.


Gathering garbage from the waves

In discussions about plastic in our waterways, something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch often comes up. That name may conjure images of a vast plastic island, but “it’s not an island that’s solid ground, that you would step onto as you would a glacier,” says Myra Hird, a professor of environmental studies at Queen’s University. There’s more than one such patch, Hird explains, and those patches are caught in different currents. And the real problem with marine plastic goes beyond what is visible to the naked eye, says Lisa Erdle, the director of science at the California-based nonprofit Five Gyres. “It’s more like the smog of the sea,” she says.

Entrepreneur Richard Hardiman was inspired to find a way to scoop up the plastic trash before it reached the ocean. He doesn’t have a tech background — he was originally a disc jockey — but every time Hardiman visited the harbour in his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa, he noticed trash floating in the bay. The best solution the South African authorities could come up with was to send people out in boats to try to catch the garbage in nets.

After reflecting on how a Roomba works, Hardiman started tinkering with what eventually became the WasteShark, which is manufactured by Amsterdam-based Ranmarine. The devices are equipped with GPS and a 4G connection, and newer models will be able to dock and recharge themselves automatically at a floating recharge station.


Hoovering up litter on land

HoolaOne also uses vacuum tech, but its devices operate on land. The Quebec-based startup evolved out of a prototype developed by a dozen mechanical engineering students at the University of Sherbrooke, who were dismayed by plastic debris on the beach at Hawaii’s Kamilo Point and wondered if they could find a solution. In 2019, after graduation, three of the original team joined up to turn their prototype into a business, with the stated aim of developing “new ways to restore ecosystems affected by plastic pollution.”

Since then, HoolaOne has adapted its technology to suit different contexts. Its HO Backpack is a unit that an operator can wear, like a Ghostbuster, with a large hose that vacuums up plastic from difficult-to-access areas. The remote-controlled HO Wrack, which is about the size of a commercial street sweeping machine, is ideal for vacuuming up nurdles (plastic beads used in manufacturing) and other detritus in locations where spills happen, such as factories or warehouses.

“We talked to some people at one of the bigger spills, and they were basically just using shovels,” says co-founder Jean-David Lantagne. “Our technology will help customers respond faster to these spills, reducing their cost and their impact on the ecosystem.” HoolaOne is looking to bring its devices to market this year.


Zapping plastic pollution at its source

Macarena Cataldo-Hernandez, the founder of Vancouver-based Viridis Research, is trying to solve this problem before microplastics even get into the municipal water supply. Her interest in decontamination was initially sparked by observing inequities around access to potable water and sanitation in her native Chile. “At that point, I knew that water was a problem, but I didn’t know what to do about it,” she says. While obtaining a doctorate in chemical engineering in Italy she learned about the process of electro-oxidation, which uses an electrical current to effectively break down microplastics into non-toxic foundational compounds — nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water.

After moving to Vancouver to continue her water-related research, Cataldo-Hernandez worked in the apparel and textile industry, which opened her eyes to the effects of manufacturing and supply chains on the environment. “When you look at the sources of microplastics in the oceans,” she says, “about a third of that pollution is coming from washing synthetic textiles in our homes, which is why we’ve turned our focus there.”

The prototype Viridis has developed is about the size of a shoebox and can be attached to a washing machine to remove pollutants, including microplastics and microfibres, before the water leaves the machine. “We are able to destroy any kind of organic compound, a dye or pesticides, anything that contains carbon,” says Cataldo-Hernandez,  “and it works with microplastics.” She says the company is currently talking to appliance manufacturers about a partnership that would incorporate the device into home washing machines.

Tackling the deluge of microplastics upstream before they make their way into our water supply and the broader aquatic ecosystem — is an example of how new technology can be applied to transform an unwieldy issue into something more manageable. As Cataldo-Hernandez points out, governments, industrial stakeholders and consumers grasp that there’s a problem, but there’s not enough awareness around what solutions currently exist. “We believe that to change the climate crisis, we need to look for decentralized systems,” she says. “We aim to change the way that people use water — individually, and on a community level.”

Photo courtesy of WasteShark