The most promising technology for cleaning up ocean plastic is already afloat

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Inner Harbor Water Wheel. Photo by Andrew Thaler.

Pollution in the world’s waterways is one of the most serious challenges that our species is facing, and creative solutions are going to be needed in order to solve this problem.

Humans produce around 300 million tons of plastic each year and while the majority ends up in landfills, it is estimated that 0.1% ends up in our oceans.

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While there is plenty of misinformation floating around out there about what exactly these garbage patches are (hint: they aren’t solid islands of trash), there is no doubt that they are effecting the global ocean ecosystem in both profound and subtle ways.

There’s no way to know for sure, but scientists estimate the amount of plastic bobbing around the world’s oceans is around 1 million tonnes – and that’s a conservative estimate. And to make matters worse, much of this waste is accumulating in five large floating islands of garbage, two in the Atlantic Ocean, two in the Pacific Ocean, and one in the Indian Ocean.

Recently, we heard of The Ocean Cleanup which designed floating barriers to catch and concentrate the debris. Unfortunately, it will be some years before large-scale pilot tests can be initiated. But there may be another viable solution: The Water Wheel, this little solar-powered water wheel has emerged as the most promising new technology to start cleaning up this mess.

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Big wheel turn around and around. Photo by Andrew Thaler.

The wheel works by lifting trash and debris out of the water using a ‘debris raking system’, which transfers the collected items onto a conveyer belt and then into a large dumpster. Although the device is powered by the water that flows through it, the device is also hooked up to a solar generator so it requires no outside source of energy.

The water wheel was installed last May in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in the US, situated at the mouth of where one of its major rivers flow into the harbor.

The best thing about this little machine is that it’s getting experts excited about its potential. If placed in waters where the rubbish density is much higher, it could process up to 23 metric tonnes every day.

The wheel is capable of processing 25 tons (or 23 metric tonnes) of garbage each day, though there has not yet been a day when it has come close to that. Between May 16 and June 16, the wheel intercepted about 50 tons (46 tonnes) of trash that had drifted down to the harbor from city streets and would otherwise have flowed through the Chesapeake Bay en route to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Water Wheel may not be the perfect solution for every situation, but where it can work, it’s hard to argue against using it. Major cites with tightly controlled tributaries are the perfect candidates for this technology. I’ve seen a lot of fantastical ocean clean-up proposals in the last half decade, and this is the first one that I’m genuinely excited about.

The Inner Harbor Water Wheel is supported by Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, and is part of the plan to make the Inner Harbor swimmable by 2020.

See the device in action below: