Twenty plastic-busting inventions to clean our rivers and seas

From plastic-devouring machines to watchful drones, these technologies are helping tackle plastic pollution in the ocean.

There’s an incomprehensible amount of plastic in the ocean – estimates put the known total at 5 trillion individual pieces, or around 150 million tonnes. An additional 8 million tonnes finds its way into the ocean every year. That’s only increased thanks to Covid-19 and the resulting surge in single-use items like masks and gloves.

Most plastic enters the ocean via rivers, which carry vast amounts of waste from inland sources. Once in the ocean, plastic is broken down by the sun’s rays and by wind and waves, eventually transforming into smaller fragments called microplastics. But the hardy nature of the material means that this process can take hundreds of years. In the meantime, plastic – both macro and micro – wreaks havoc on marine life. It brings the risk of entanglement, and starvation (as species mistake plastics for food). As it enters the food chain, it also potentially leaches toxins into animals’ bodies – with as-yet largely unknown effects on these creatures, and the humans who consume them.

Around the world, inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs are trying to innovate us out of this predicament. With everything from plastic-munching machines, to watchful drones and microplastic-dissolving technologies, they’re finding clever ways to remove plastics from the ocean – or to stop it reaching there in the first place. The majority of these inventions target pollution in rivers, down which most waste travels before reaching the seas. Some, however, venture much further out to tackle the gargantuan task of scooping plastic directly out of the open ocean.

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