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Finance & Innovation

These College Students Invented a Beach Vacuum to Suck Up Microplastics

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Plastic waste has become an urgent ecological crisis, and could even threaten human health. The United Nations campaigns for countries to cut down on plastic production and do a better job at managing plastic waste. You can join us in taking action on this issue here.

Microplastics, by their very nature, defy easy clean-up — they’re tiny, stick to things, and often get buried beneath surfaces.

But a team of college students from Canada’s University of Sherbrooke in Quebec have invented a vacuum that efficiently separates microplastics from the environment they contaminate, according to Hawaii Public Radio.

The group recently tested the vacuum, called the Ho’ōla One, at Kamilo Beach on the Big Island, where plastic waste is regularly washed onto the shore by the waves. 

The prototype of the machine is massive, complicated, and heavy, with the frame of the vacuum requiring a special platform to be transported via a vehicle.

But trial runs of the vacuum have been successful, according to HPR. 

The vacuum works by sucking up sand on a beach and depositing it into vats of water. The sand sinks to the bottom of the vat, while the microplastics float to the top, allowing for easy separation. 

“All the microplastic, you can’t pick them up with your hands — it would take too long,” said Sam Duval, one of the device’s founders, in an interview with HPR. “We did some research and realized there were no such machines around the world [to clean up microplastics].”

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 11.02.07 AM.pngSTATE DEPARTMENT OF LAND AND NATURAL RESOURCES

Read More: Nearly Everything You Consume Is Contaminated by Microplastics, Report Says

“All the plastic arrives from the ocean, so it floats, so we can separate the microplastic from the sand by doing this,” he added. 

Beaches around the world have become covered in plastic pollution in recent decades because of the way ocean currents carry garbage onto shores. Much more plastic waste gets littered or sent to landfills where it often gets carried by the wind onto beaches.

Each year, more than 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans, which cause extensive problems for marine life

Microplastics, in particular, are especially alarming because they leach toxins into the water and marine animals accidentally ingest them in large quantities. As plastic breaks down from the wear and tear of environmental exposure, they crumble into microplastics, tiny bits of nearly indestructible plastic. 

Read More: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is About to Undergo Round 2 of a Massive Cleanup

Scientists estimate that there are more than 50 million microplastics in the world’s oceans.

Duval and his collaborators left their vacuum on Big Island for other people to use in beach clean-up efforts and they hope to develop other versions of the machine that are smaller and more efficient. 

“No more plastic on the beaches — that’s the ultimate goal,” Duval said. “We want to use our engineering skills to help to save the planet.”