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Can Bots Make a Difference in the Plastic Waste Problem

Beachgoers in a number of Great Lakes states may be surprised over the next several summers by seemingly autonomous bots scouring the sand and water for trash. The bots will pick up anything they find, but the project behind them is aimed mainly at addressing the plastic problem. Will they make an actual difference?

An article recently published on the GreenBiz website discusses a number of tech-based solutions for attacking plastic waste on beaches and in waterways. Its main focus is the bots and drones provided to Great Lakes states through a grant from Meijer supermarkets. Apparently, the company is spending $1 million to outfit communities with cleaning robots and drones.

On the Sand and in the Water

The bots in question are land-based machines that drive up and down beaches, scooping up trash as they go. The drones are used in the water. They perform much the same function. Both types of machines are not autonomous, though. They are controlled remotely by human operators. This makes them similar to flying drones.

Though effective in principle, the bots and drones have some definite limitations. The biggest is capacity. According to the GreenBiz post, limited battery capacity gives the drones and bots the ability to clean up about one trash bag of litter on a single charge.

That is not necessarily a bad thing if human operators are right there to change out dead batteries with fresh ones. But in a remote scenario, one charge doesn’t go very far. By contrast, a team of half-a-dozen volunteers can clean up more trash in the same amount of time without the need for lithium-ion batteries and chargers.

Mining Lithium Is Harmful

Dispatching robots and drones is one of many novel tech-based approaches to the plastic waste problem. But as always, there are trade-offs. For example, some technological solutions risk the lives of the very animals recycling advocates are trying to protect. The makers of the Great Lakes bots and drones say endangering wildlife is not a problem for their devices.

Still, the bots and drones run on lithium-ion batteries. The problem is that lithium has to be mined via a process that is costly and time-consuming. It is also exceptionally harmful to the environment. In effect, we are damaging one environment through lithium mining only to save another environment potentially polluted by plastic.

Every Action Has Consequences

Few would argue that we could stand to live without so much plastic in our lives. It is also easy enough to make the case that it’s not healthy for animals to ingest plastic. But attacking the plastic problem responsibly requires that we acknowledge a fundamental truth of life: every action has consequences.

Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that recycles industrial plastic waste in seven states. Operating their business requires consuming electricity and fossil fuels. We accept this as a reasonable trade-off. We are willing to consume some energy resources in order to keep industrial plastics out of landfills.

Are we willing to continue doing the damage related to lithium-ion mining in order to build trash cleaning robots and drones? For that matter, is the same damage acceptable in the pursuit of the much-celebrated electric vehicle (EV)?

People Need to Change

History may someday prove that garbage-collecting robots and drones were one of the best things humanity ever did to address the plastic problem. But more likely, it will prove just the opposite. In the end, plastic pollution is the result of humans being unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. People need to change. Technology cannot do it for them.

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