Trash Robots Saving the World’s Water

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SEATTLE — Clean water is a basic necessity that 2.1 billion people on the planet do not have access to. The lack of clean water leads to poor health, which prevents people from being able to work or become educated, thereby continuing the cycle of poverty. Lack of clean water can be caused by pollution, climate change, disease, water stress and shortages because of growing demand. In many cases, humans play the biggest role in creating these issues and are also the ones that can ultimately solve the problem.

The Impact of Ocean Pollution

Approximately 1.4 billion pounds of trash ends up in the oceans each year. Oceans are connected to all of the Earth’s other bodies of water, meaning that any trash commonly found in the ocean can be found in a river or a lake and vice-versa, which affects the already small percentage of fresh water available. Of the 1.4 billion pounds of trash, the main contributor is plastic. If ingested via polluted water, plastic particles can lead to inflammation, which is an immune response that if prolonged can cause extreme damage. It can also bind strongly to other toxins like mercury and pesticides, chemicals which can affect body cells. leading to an increased risk of cancer as well as reproductive and developmental problems.

It further affects human populations through food consumption in the form of aquatic life. Plastic pollution has negatively impacted 267 species worldwide through ingestion, starvation, suffocation and infection. It also reduces biodiversity, as many species become extinct. This decline in aquatic life affects the livelihoods of subsistence fishers and those who depend on fishing to earn a living, making it harder for them to rise out of poverty.

Rise of the Trash Robots

Two Australian surfers took a step towards combatting pollution in 2015 with the invention of the Seabin. Seabin is a garbage can designed to collect trash in the ocean, rivers and other bodies of water. It is connected to a dock which has pumps that remove floating trash by sucking it into a bag and then releasing the water. It has been estimated to catch 1.5 kg of debris a day, or half a ton a year, and its water pump uses about $1 in energy consumption.

Eco-Business reported that the most common objects caught in the bag are cigarette butts (29 percent of all trash collected), plastic fragments (28 percent), food wrappers (26 percent), foam particles (5 percent), bottle caps (4 percent), straws and stirrers (2 percent) and plastic bags (1 percent). Where the Seabin falls short is that it can only collect the garbage around where it is stationed, limiting its potential.

To address the need for mobile trash collection, Urban Rivers recently completed a Kickstarter campaign to bring its very own Trash Robot to life. This design allows the device to move across bodies of water, which increases the range of collection. Another difference from the Seabin is that there is no bag that needs to be emptied, as the robot can deliver the trash to a collection location for removal.

In the simplest terms, Urban Rivers’ Trash Robot is basically a remote controlled truck on water. Urban Rivers is capitalizing on the ease of controlling the robot by incorporating it into an online game that allows anyone to control the robot. This is an interactive way to get individuals involved in protecting bodies of water and consequently promoting pollution-free water.

The team of designers is hoping to increase the number of trash robots in rivers, as well as add features like stronger WIFi connectivity, a stationary trash can and tracking capability. If improvements continue, it could lead to a substantial decrease in the amount of trash present in bodies of water, which means decreased contamination and an increase in clean freshwater.

Looking Ahead

The trash robots are a great step forward in combatting pollution, the major cause of water scarcity. However, it could also be a method of improving the lives of individuals in developing countries. The most direct effect of decreased pollution is improved health as a result of increased availability of clean water, but the proliferation of trash robots could lead to economic opportunities as well. In order to deploy trash robots across the world, people will be needed to maintain them and remove the trash they collect. This illustrates the multi-faced benefits trash robots can have in helping to lift people out of poverty.

– Stephanie Singh
Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Stephanie Singh

Stephanie writes for The Borgen Project from Toronto, Canada and Bronx, NY. Her academic interests include cell and molecular biology.

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