By 2050, the amount of plastic in the sea will weigh more than the amount of fish. Along with this estimate by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there is an estimated 150 million-metric tons of plastic waste currently circulating the ocean merged with an estimated 8 million-metric tons added every year, according to the Ocean Conservancy. That is the equivalency of emptying a garbage truck of trash into the ocean every minute.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that plastic really became popular, but it’s a wonder how we ever got along without it — at least that is what manufacturers would love you to believe. It’s versatile, strong, inexpensive, and because of these redeeming qualities, is now used in everything from your toothbrush to life-saving medical equipment. Even your car and the airplane you took to visit family recently have plastic.

There is no denying that plastic has made modern life more comfortable in many ways. But combine its cost-effectiveness with over-consumption, littering, and pollution — and we’re facing an astronomical cleanup. To do this, scientists are turning to robots. These robots and their creators aspire to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of cleaning our oceans.



IBM is leading with a unique way of addressing our growing plastic waste problem. IBM built autonomous 3D microscopes embedded with artificial intelligence and placed them in the ocean to study plankton. This enables scientists “to see life on a scale where a human hair is as big as a tree.” according to IBM Research Editorial Staff. Plankton are highly sensitive to water quality, and just so happen to be at the bottom of the vast oceanic food chain. Through learning what is harming these sensitive creatures, scientists can determine what will continue up the food chain and harm others.

With the combination of IBM engineer Simon Bianco’s autonomous AI microscope and Tom Zimmerman’s lensless microscope, which works much like the ones in cell phones, the two hope to, “gain a better understanding of how the ecosystem operates, to better manage the health of the environment.” This approach by IBM is an important reminder that all things — big or small — are connected.


“Big problems call for big solutions,” boasts the SeaVax website as they present the world’s largest vacuum cleaner. Bluebird Marine Systems LTD have created a 144-foot-long autonomous machine that will suck up plastic solids and microplastics. Their approach to cleaning up the millions of tons of pollution is a bit more tangible than IBM’s approach. The robotic vacuum, or robovac called SeaVax, can carry up to 150 tons of plastic in the cargo hold. The SeaVax is equipped with solar panels and two wind turbines that create the power needed for the electric pumps and filters to do their work.

Unfortunately, the SeaVax needs additional funding to continue the development of the prototype. The unintentional capture and death of small marine life is also a concern with the Seavax. At this point, Bluebird Marine Systems claims that the final SeaVax system will automatically shut down when marine life is detected and come complete with an alert system if any marine life is in danger.


Founded by a then 18-year-old Boyan Slat in 2013, The Ocean Cleanup (TOC) has been focused on The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (TGPGP), the patch of ocean garbage now estimated to be twice the size of Texas.

TOC’s design is rather simple with a 600-meter-long floater that is intended to keep plastic from going over and a 3-meter-deep skirt that keeps plastic from going underneath. The length of the floater imitates a coastline and is moved naturally by the current, allowing it to pick up plastic as it goes. Imagine a high tech pool noodle with a skirt below it to catch plastic below. TOC’s grandiose goal is to clean half of the TGPGP in as little as five years and have estimated that with fleets of their systems 90 percent of ocean plastic could be removed by 2040.

TOC’s systems are autonomous with solar-powered lights, cameras, sensors, and satellite antennas making for a seemingly efficient system with the least amount of potential for disruption of fish and marine life or for collisions with passerby’s vessels. Unfortunately, none of these cleanup efforts are an exact science. There is no model for this type of cleanup and to TOC’s dismay, their first system catches the plastic but does not retain it and needed repair within four months.


Recovery of the plastic and its particles is much more difficult than anyone had anticipated, but all of these innovators can agree on one very important thing, prevention is key and we should all strive to use less plastic. Water is planet Earth’s most precious resource and it is becoming the most threatened. The drive behind IBM’s efforts is the reality that 50 percent of Earth’s population will be living in areas of water scarcity in 10 years and monitoring that is imperative to the survival of many species, including ourselves. It is through continued innovation, education and actively reducing consumption that we will prevail.

If you want to do your part in helping these innovators change the world, donate to: