A new partnership among the Environmental Protection Agency, a Delaware water quality group and a clean-tech startup hopes to use a network of trash-catching devices to help close data gaps on microplastics.
The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary and the Australian company that builds the devices, Seabin, launched the effort in June by putting two of the machines in rivers in Philadelphia to monitor water quality and collect garbage, with a special interest on plastics.
"Everyone's seen the plastic bottles that are floating down the river, or if you've walked alongside the river, you've seen food wrappers or different things," said Angela Padeletti, operations director for Wilmington, Del.-based PDE. "But it's not just those big things. It's the smaller plastics that people might not be able to see just underneath the surface."
The devices, which are also called seabins, are a sort of trash can in the water that sucks in material, both to clean up rivers and gather information for research.
For the 12-month project along the Delaware River, Seabin staff will empty the bins daily. The company has donated supplies and staff time to the partnership.
The bins include water sensors that connect to a cloud-based software platform Seabin is developing.
Seabin CEO and co-founder Pete Ceglinski said in a news release that the project "reinforces the need for immediate solutions to the global problem of plastic pollution in our waterways and our oceans."
"Our project goal is to work together in closing the data gap of microplastics and contaminants in the Delaware [River] whilst engaging the local community with educational and prevention programs," he said.
The company sees the monitoring technology playing a key role.
"Seeing the new tech in the water, operating, how efficient it was and with its cloud-based capabilities, gave us a glimpse of the future today," said Bryan Plante, Seabin's U.S. general manager.
EPA said in a news release it hopes the devices can provide valuable information on the types and volume of trash, and its relationship to storms and flooding.
"Partnerships like this lead to innovation and accelerate progress," said Adam Ortiz, EPA's mid-Atlantic regional administrator. "We all hate seeing trash floating in our waters and this device is part of the solution. Not only is it pretty cool to watch, but the monitoring and maintenance of the devices can create jobs in public works and sciences."
The bins currently are in two spots, at the Bartram's Garden dock and by the Pier 3 marina in Philadelphia. Another will be placed in Wiggins Park in Camden, N.J., in the next few weeks.
"One Seabin is not going to filter obviously a large amount of water and that's true, but any little bit can help," Padeletti said. "First of all, [we're] taking that plastic out of the waterways.
"And second of all, we, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, see this as a tool, to get again, back to the bigger question of what kind of plastics are in our waterways and to educate people about how much are in the waterways," she said.
The bins need to be placed in spots within a specific tidal range and water depth, and they need access to a power supply.
EPA and PDE play very different roles. PDE has more focus on education and outreach about the project and the findings. It plans to start the education process later this year as more data is analyzed.
"When we get that data and information to see consistently kind of what we're capturing, then we'll start talking with educators and the community about what we're seeing in specific regions," Padeletti said.
EPA provides more technical assistance and has funded PDA's educational side of the project. It also helped to find the best areas to locate the bins.
Moving forward, Padeletti said the program will be looking for more funding to expand.
Right now, PDE does not know much about the plastics that have been found, but it has started testing and identifying.
"What we hope to gain is a better understanding of what's really in our waterways and then to take that information back and to figure out how to have less of those plastics in our waterways in the end," Padeletti said.
Seabin is also launching in Los Angeles in Marina Del Rey, where it has eight bins, but it will be expanding to 30.