At a beach cleanup, volunteers or workers usually focus on picking up pieces of trash like plastic water bottles or food packaging. But the sand is often filled with the tinier scraps of plastic that are left behind as those items break down. And while it’s possible to begin to collect them—using a mesh screen to sift pieces of plastic from the sand—it’s a gargantuan task.
A new robot called the BeBot is designed to help clean up smaller plastic waste, traveling back and forth on beach surfaces sifting through the sand’s top layer. “It’s designed for areas that have relatively clean beaches but large amounts of microplastics,” says Alex Schulze, cofounder and CEO of 4ocean, which makes products from plastic collected from the ocean, beaches, and rivers, and has partnered with Poralu Marine, the developer of the robot.
Large equipment like diesel-powered tractors or a giant vacuum that sucks up plastic from the sand are sometimes also used for beach cleanups. But the BeBot, which runs on batteries connected to a solar panel, is quieter and much smaller, so it’s less likely to disturb wildlife or beachgoers. As the BeBot travels back and forth, covering an area roughly three-fifths the size of a football field each hour, it sifts the top layer of sand through a screen, capturing anything larger than a square centimeter, from pieces of old packaging to cigarette butts. It also picks up seashells and pebbles, so after the machine is full, someone needs to sort through the contents to separate recyclable plastic and trash from materials that can return to the sand. That’s still time consuming, but much faster than trying to sift through each part of the beach manually.
4ocean is beginning to test the robot in Hawaii, where some beaches are known as the most plastic-polluted places on the planet. “That’s where a machine like this is designed for, because it’s nearly impossible to spend that much time sorting out these materials,” Schulze says. The company, which hires full-time staff for cleanups, will continue to pick up larger trash like bottles by hand. But the BeBot will help collect the rest, and the company will then recycle the plastic it collects for use in products like sneakers. It hopes to also encourage others, including owners of beachfront hotels, to use the robot on beaches around the world. Schulze acknowledges that it’s only one step—a bigger shift away from single-use plastic is obviously also necessary so that plastic stops landing on beaches in the first place.
“This machine is by no means a solution for the ocean plastic crisis,” he says. “We hope to use this machine to collect that plastic that exists as well as raise awareness to how that plastic is getting on the coastlines and in the ocean. And we hope to use it as a tool to drive awareness so that people live a more sustainable lifestyle and cut down on the amount of single-use plastic that they’re consuming.”