Floating Treasures?

Huge amounts of plastic waste float in the oceans, where they threaten marine habitats. Researchers from Siemens Corporate Technology are working on solutions for the collection and use of this waste. The challenge is to turn their concepts into a promising business model.


by Tim Schröder

For a long time, the attitude toward plastic waste was that of the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s still common for people to throw plastic waste into the wilds in countries that don’t have recycling systems or an effective waste-disposal service. Rain transports this plastic into rivers and from there out to sea. Because plastics are hardly degraded naturally, the amount of waste is continuously growing. Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., and the business consultancy firm McKinsey estimate that 150 million tons of plastic currently float around in the world’s oceans and this amount is increasing by about eight million tons per year. This plastic not only litters coastal areas but, is a severe threat to marine life. Sea turtles and seals get caught in old fishing nets, for example, and seabirds such as albatrosses die from eating floating plastic remains. Human beings are affected as well. As plastics decompose, they form particles known as microplastic that are increasingly finding their way into our food chain. Plastic waste has become a global tragedy.

Searching for a Business Model

For several years now, startup companies and NGOs have been creating concepts for removing plastic waste from the sea and, if possible, recycling it. There are currently a variety of garbage collector prototypes, including a catamaran that uses a net to gather waste out of the sea. Over a period of five years, a Dutch crowdfunding project called “The Ocean Cleanup” developed a seaworthy barrier that collects waste transported by ocean currents. In a kind of marine trash collection system, ships will regularly collect this garbage and transport it to land for recycling. Although these concepts seem promising, there is as yet no business model that would be profitable over the medium term and thus self-supporting. 

Several concepts seem promising, but there is as yet no business model that would be profitable.

In view of this, three researchers at Siemens Corporate Technology (CT) have teamed up in order to determine what role Siemens could play in fighting global pollution caused by plastic waste. The project, whose motto is “Cleaning the Ocean Is Our Business,” has received funding over the past 18 months from Quickstarter, Siemens’ in-house crowdfunding program. This program enables unusual ideas and concepts to be quickly launched within the company without any red tape.

“To begin with, we put together a global overview of the current state of waste collection and recycling technologies as well as of possible markets for recycled plastics,” says Felix Fischer, who is working on the project at CT along with Ingo Bernsdorf and Florian Ansgar Jaeger. Adidas, for example, is already using recycled plastic waste from the sea. The sports equipment manufacturer is one of the few companies to incorporate sustainability in its business model. For example, the company sold around one million pairs of Parley shoes in 2017 and this number is set to rise to five million pairs this year. What’s notable about these shoes is that, according to Adidas, every pair prevents about 11 plastic bottles from getting into the world’s oceans. The bottles instead get recycled for the production of the shoes. However, this example cannot belie the fact that commercial waste collection technologies or well-established waste and raw material flows for seaborne garbage are still a long way off. 

The researchers are pursuing three threads: the detection of plastic waste, its collection, and the recycling of the collected material.

Detecting, Collecting, Recycling

“We are ultimately pursuing three threads: the detection of plastic waste at sea, the collection of this waste, and the processing or recycling of the collected material,” says Bernsdorf. “We took a close look at all three of these activities.” Bernsdorf adds that Siemens’ current range of technologies would make the recycling of this waste particularly interesting for the company. “We are envisioning a container-based solution in which non-recyclable plastic waste would be incinerated so that gasifiers and turbines can turn it into electricity,” says Bernsdorf. Such containers could be used on Southeast Asian islands, for instance, where an especially large amount of plastic gets into the sea due to a lack of recycling systems. 

Moreover, electricity is often produced there by diesel generators, which makes the various islands and island states dependent on fuel imports. “Such a container could easily be created with existing Siemens technology,” adds Jaeger. “This solution would promote decentralized energy generation, which will become much more important in the future.” Southeast Asian island communities could either use the waste that is washed onto their coasts in large amounts every day or the refuse that is produced on the islands themselves. 

Floating Treatment Facility

However, the only way to really solve the plastic problem is to collect the huge piles of garbage that float far out on the high seas. Fischer, Bernsdorf and Ansgar Jaeger have therefore worked together with Paul Cleverley from Siemens Digital Factory and specialists from a major german company, which is also active in shipbuilding, to develop initial ideas for a special ship that would not only collect the waste at sea but also make use of it. The platform could, for example, presort some of the plastic and directly turn a small portion of the non-recyclable waste into energy for its own CO2-neutral operation.  Pyrolysis (heating) would be used to turn the remainder into oil, which could be supplied to other ships as fuel. Although no one knows whether this system will ever become a reality, the idea is very promising, says Fischer. In talks with colleagues from the Siemens Power and Gas Division in Vienna, Austria, experts have also discussed further alternative ways in which plastic waste could be used for creating energy or for the desalination of sea water, for example.

Besides being processed at sea or incinerated to produce electricity on land, the plastic could also be directly reused.

Currents and the density of the garbage tend to concentrate it in various areas. As a result, ships or other waste-collection solutions will require detection systems. Drones could be used to discover the areas where the waste concentration is especially high. Such drones would have to be equipped with high-performance camera technology and sensors and be linked to the overall system via a data interface. According to Fischer, “Siemens’ MindSphere cloud solution already provides us with a high-performance technology that could connect the three complex threads: detection, collection, and use.”

Fischer, Bernsdorf and Jaeger have taken a particularly close look at various ways in which the plastic waste could be cost-effectively reused in the future. Besides being processed at sea or incinerated to produce electricity on land, the plastic could also be directly reused. “We could investigate whether Siemens might be able to use such recycled plastic in its own products,” says Jaeger. “Many of our products require special plastic mixtures that are heat stable or flame retardant. Siemens should determine in which niches it might be able to gradually introduce the use of recyclates made from ocean-borne plastic waste.”

But one small application is already within reach. The three researchers are currently working with Siemens Real Estate, which, among other things, operates the company’s employee restaurants in Germany, to develop a prototype drinking cup whose core would be made of a seaborne plastic recyclate – admittedly a minuscule step, but nevertheless a beginning. 


Tim Schröder

Picture credits: from top: picture 1 and 2: gettyimages, 3. The Ocean Cleanup, 5. Adidas

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