5 ways technologies are helping beat plastic pollution

On World Environment Day, consider these facts on plastic pollution from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP):

  • Each year, around 13 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans. That’s the equivalent of a full garbage truck emptying into the ocean every minute.
  • In the last decade, the world produced more plastic than in the whole last century.
  • And 50 percent of the plastic we use is single-use or considered ‘disposable.’

How can we flip this trend and end plastic pollution?

The ‘3 Rs’ aim to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic use and consumption. And this year, UNEP has added, “If you can’t reuse it, refuse it.”

With the current scale of the problem, it is clear that reducing our use and cleaning up our impact is critical to the health of our environment. So how can Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) help to clean up and prevent plastic pollution?

1. Internet and social media

Firstly, you are reading this because of the power of the internet to connect people to causes they care about and to raise awareness on critical issues.

This year the UNEP campaign, #BeatPlasticPollution, aims to get people to pledge to give up single use plastics. Using social media awareness, they are raising funds and challenging teams to hold events across the globe.

See the challenge issued from Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Thank you @PEspinosaC for tagging me in. We have already terminated the plastic bags, so to , I’m terminating plastic spoons at home. @LeoDiCaprio @Regions20 and @GovArnoldUSC: Tag, you’re it! 

2. Satellite observation of ocean plastics

The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization that is developing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic litter.

They are using satellite imaging and machine learning to help clean up and capture the 5 trillion pieces of plastic trash they have observed in the world’s “ocean garbage patches.” They estimate that within 5 years they could collect 50% of the ocean’s garbage.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has also announced that it will use satellites to detect and track this vast quantity of plastic from space to find where it is most concentrated and to focus cleanup efforts on these areas.

3. Artificial Intelligence to understand natural systems

According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum and PwC, Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth, the maturation of key technologies including big data and machine learning is opening up new possibilities for Earth conservation.

For example, with increased computing power and AI algorithms, climate scientists can better understand natural systems and optimize interventions by modeling and predicting climate patterns in a new field of “climate informatics.” It also allows for better coordination between researchers to share and analyse key data on pollution.

4. Big data and data visualization

Big data will be key to measuring and tracking Earth’s resources. Using machine learning and data visualization, big data can drive better decisions. Here are 6 data visualizationsthat help explain the plastic problem.

But, one of the biggest problems is what we don’t know.

According to ITU’s E-Waste Monitor, much of the problem managing e-waste is the lack of proper information. It’s estimated that only 41 countries properly document and measure their e-waste.

5. Blockchain

A grassroots organization, The Plastic Bank, offers Blockchain secured digital tokens for the exchange of recycled plastics. They aim to stop the flow of plastic into our oceans by rewarding those who recycle. Thereby reducing trash and helping fight poverty. Working with partners at Cognition Foundry and IBM to implement their scheme, The Plastic Bank aims to scale its blockchain solutions to meet growing demands and secure the transactions that run on it.

And the UNFCCC recently launched a Climate Chain Coalition with over 80 organizations committed to using blockchain technologies for climate change efforts.

It is clear to move to a sustainable model of development we will need all available technologies and all efforts to #beatplasticpollution.

By Theadora Mills, @theadoramills


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