Throughout the summer, our team aimed to constantly evaluate the direction and societal impact of our project. We understand that our research was (and still is) more than just “science,” but rather a systematic investigation into a particular societal problem, and thus we had to take into account questions of large-scale product design, economic viability, and other challenges faced by plastic pollution research groups when designing and executing our experiments. As a result, we contacted Pete Ceglinski, ex-product designer and co-founder of recent startup, The Seabin Project. The Seabin is an “automated rubbish collector” that can be attached to the back of a boat or yacht and used to filter seawater of everything from detergents and oil to plastic and full-sized bottles and cans. According to Ceglinski, in the products’ promotional video, the goal of the startup is to “create a world where we [will not] need the Seabin.” Pete, when responding to our inquiry request, redirected us to the Seabin’s Head of Science, Sergio Ruiz-Halpern, Ph.D., who researches “biogeochemical cycles with a clear focus on the effects on, and effects of biota.” To gain a better understanding of the Seabin (one of the main inspirations behind our project) and get feedback on our own project, we asked Dr. Ruiz-Halpern the following questions:
Q: One of the goals on the Seabin website states "converting captured plastics into energy."Is there currently a plan in place to do that? Could you see something like our system, if it progressed past the proof-of-concept stage, coexisting with the Seabin in the future?
A: Dr. Ruiz-Halpern expressed that it would be exciting to use collected plastic to generate electricity. However, due to being a recent startup, the project’s goal of “converting captured plastics into energy” remains far into the future.
Q: The press release article describing your partnership with Poralu Marine states that the Seabin is "connected to an electric pump which creates a flow to attract floating waste and hydrocarbons to the collector". How much power is required to operate the pump? We are curious if our project could hypothetically provide some power to a Seabin device.
A: Dr. Ruiz-Halpern told us that the pump used to power the Seabin takes 24V. Our current system produces electricity in the range of 0.3V. Knowing this, we realized that we would probably not be able to power the Seabin with current microbial fuel cell technology. However, we can harness the small amount of electricity in a much more valuable way by using it as a signal to detect PET.
Q: Can the Seabin collect microplastics? If so, how?
A: Dr. Ruiz-Halpern’s answer was that because the Seabin operates within a controlled environment (seaport), it aids the problem of microplastic by preventing the creation of more microplastic, as opposed to directly removing it from the ocean.
Q: What have you been doing with the floating rubbish, oil, fuel, and detergents that the Seabin collects? The video on your website states that you are trying to use some of the plastics to build new Seabins; what do you plan to do with the rest of the waste that you collect? Also, roughly speaking, what percent of the trash currently collected is plastic and of this how much of it is PET-containing items, such as bottles and food packaging?
A: Dr. Ruiz-Halpern explained to us that The Seabin Project values “circular economy” and aims to eliminate plastic pollution via a “domino effect”—using seabins to make more seabins. However, The Seabin Project currently does not have statistics on what percent of trash collected by the Seabin is PET plastic.
Given his background into biogeochemical research, Dr. Ruiz-Halpern also informed us that ocean plastic ranges in age and in degree of weathering, a fact that we then considered throughout the rest of our project. In a follow up encounter, he suggested that, down the line, Seabin and our project could pursue the following collaborations:
“The Seabin Project can provide real world PET gathered from our Seabins to trial on your bacteria [to] see how [it] behaves.”
“As the voltage generated by [your device] will not be very large, we could aim [to try] to power other devices [aka not the Seabin’s pump]. For example, we might use (if needed) fish deterrent technology that will need to be powered and that could be provided by your contraption. This will take some time, but who knows!”
Lastly, he referred us to Parley for the Oceans, an organization “where creators, thinkers, and leaders come together to raise awareness for the beauty and fragility of our oceans and collaborate on projects that can end their destruction.”
After reaching out to Parley for the Oceans, we were redirected to their Junior Project Manager, Lisa Gran, who sent us 10g of “mixed raw plastic” from the organization’s most recent beach cleanup. Future directions of our project would include characterizing degradation of the acquired mixed plastic to simulate a real-world situation and work towards optimizing our system.