November 29, 2020

The war on plastic: cleaning up our waters using technology – IEEE member comments

In response to the devastating impact plastic bags have on oceans and on precious marine wildlife, the UK Government recently stepped up its fight against single-use plastics by confirming that the plastic carrier bag charge will be extended to all retailers from April 2021.

Plastics that are dumped into oceans, rivers, lakes and shores are dangerous for marine life because, as they break down, they turn into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics that fish, marine mammals and birds often mistake for food. Microplastics are dangerous for fish because plastic does not fully biodegrade and can cause adverse health effects in the fish and the animals that eat them.

IEEE member, Krista Beardy, discusses how technology can be used to help monitor and understand how plastic is negatively affecting the waters we use daily:

“The research I am conducting can be classified as a ‘baseline’ analysis. To rectify the problem of marine based plastic pollution, we must first understand and identify all facets of the situation we are currently facing. From the chemistry behind polymer science, to the effects on marine wildlife, to how ocean currents distribute and concentrate plastic pollution, all of these questions have yet to be answered in full.”

Beardy explains that plastic is not actually toxic – it is the additives like thermoplastics, polypropylene, polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride that we put into plastic that are dangerous for marine life to consume. She continues:

“The problem is that plastic is very rarely just plastic. These plastic products are enriched with a variety of additives that are designed to improve performance, to reduce costs and to enhance those final properties.”

Utilising drones, robotics and AI technology helps researchers understand and monitor oceans and waterways to ensure that all living organisms have a clean environment. Beardy also explains that there are a lot of innovative ideas being explored to help society in reduction, reuse and recycle programmes. She concludes:

“Ideas have emerged such as using plastic surplus for roadways, bricks and other building materials, to the use of plastic-to-fuel pyrolysis technology. Research is also ongoing on developing polymers and polymer substitutes that possess the capacity for accelerated degradation.”