Swimming Against the Waste Current: A Satellite-Mapping Solution for Floating and Underwater Ocean Garbage Patches

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Written by Hack the Planet entrants Nabeelah Pooloo & Zaheer Allam

With rapid urbanization trends and a subsequent increase in travelling, demand for coastal accommodations was booming pre-pandemic, supported by peer-to-peer structures such as AirBnB. This is understood, as most of us love the beach and the lifestyle it portrays. However, this idyllic scenery is often manicured with an underlying bleaker picture, revealing an estimated yearly 8.3 million tons of plastic waste in our oceans. At a compounded rate, this is quickly becoming a critical environmental problem affecting the planet and its thriving ecosystems and biodiversity life they host.

The statistics on ocean waste is concerning to say the least. According to the United Nations, at least 800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris, and as much as 80 percent of that litter is plastic. But we often do not realise that what we see, and feel strongly about, is only part of the problem. Actually, only 15% of garbage floats on water and, 70% ends up at the bottom of the sea, with roughly 3% ending up disintegrating – impacting on aquatic life. We could say that this ultimately impacts us too, as it ends up in our plate, despite the Netflix Documentary ‘Seaspiracy’; building a strong case against eating fish. The issue here is however not about our culinary preferences, but how to ensure that our oceans are healthy, and whether we like it or not, this reverberates strongly on coastal communities.

Sure, while most of the world is now urbanized, with an expected 68% by 2030, a large population still thrives on coastal activities. In fact, this is even more pronounced for Small Islands Developing States (SIDS), which also incidentally manage disproportionally large maritime territories. Take the case of the island of Tuvalu, where its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is 27,000 times its size. This is massive, showcasing how the livelihood of the sea can impact directly on the economy. In fact, it is estimated that fishing contribution equates for nearly 7% of its GDP and, tourism equates for more than 6.4% which is strongly correlated with their coastal lifestyle of Sea, Sun and Sand. With national economies having a strong dependence on the sea, it will be key to preserve this image for the survival of SIDS’ economies, but the increasing waste threat is looming, and increasing concerning.

The ‘Hack the Planet’ competition brings an interesting perspective by welcoming participants to ponder on satellite applications to solve our most pressing climate issues. For us, this provides an opportunity to welcome more visibility on the pressing waste problem. Here, we talk about both floating and sunken waste, as remember only part of the 15% of floating waste is captured in our social media feeds. We need to also strongly feel about the unseen, and the dangers it brings. Sure, by now we do have a web of satellites capable of producing high quality images of oceans, leading to the efficient mapping of floating garbage patches. In fact, there are already some maps available, but what is lacking, and that is what we stress about, is a comprehensive framework of mapping both floating and underwater garbage.

This is where it gets interesting, as we need to adopt and compute this with other datasets such as ocean temperature, underwater current, wind, etc, coupled with an indepth study of ocean waste composition and their disintegration rate; all fed within an Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm, with a pre-trained Deep Learning (DL) model. Ultimately, the aim is for the production of both current and predictive maps of floating and underwater garbage. Sure, there are some limitations, as the topography of the ocean’s floor is largely unmapped and unknown, but that’s another subject, as we need to start somewhere. Having this first set of data will already be an incredible wealth of knowledge to both scientists and policy makers and can help to better understand our oceans and formulate adequate geography-focused policies.

While we all understand the importance of this dataset, the primary challenge however remains how to approach this practically in terms of business and economic structure. Here, we need to think outside the box, and propose that we take a few steps back, as we cannot treat a global issue with traditional business scale solutions. We need to be innovative, and pragmatic at the same time, and for this we propose to adopt a multi and trans disciplinary approach.

We propose to look at this proposal in two parts. First, the generation of maps, which can surely be done fairly easily through grants, private contributions and membership fees to access data. We are not too worried about this. What is challenging, and quite exciting is the second part. We believe that the produced maps must lead to remediative actions; hence cleaning and extraction of waste for our oceans. Here, we propose that we look at it from a multi-facetted challenge, where a cohesive framework can be developed to ensure funds for the global activities, with a funding framework applicable to specific geographies; which can tie into:

  1. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
  2. Corporate memberships
  3. State memberships
  4. Emissions Trading Schemes (ETS)
  5. Voluntary offset schemes
  6. Tax incentives, amongst others

The primary goal is not only to produce pretty maps. We have a lot of those already. The main challenge is to ensure that those maps can lead to action-oriented results. So, we need to also think about how those maps lead to a better world. We need to build bridges, and in this process, we need to think beyond traditional scopes. The problem we chose to address for this competition is bigger than all of us, and perhaps it is suitable in this context to quote a fitting movie, Aquaman: ‘The ocean is not just our home, it is who we are.’

Nabeelah Pooloo

Nabeelah Pooloo is currently employed at Statistic Mauritius which is the national statistical agency of Mauritius and is a student of Master in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics from Université des Mascareignes in partnership with Université de Limoges. She received the NCC Education 1st in Africa Award in 2015 and was previously a university-level instructor at the SNIT Business School. She is deeply passionate about the cutting-edge applications of Artificial Intelligence and their use in interdisciplinary fields for social good. She recently co-authored 2 research articles based on the application of Artificial Intelligence on coral reef livelihoods.

Zaheer Allam

Zaheer Allam is the Chairperson of the National Youth Environment Council (NYEC) under the aegis of the Prime Minister’s Office in Mauritius, Board Member of the Mauritius Renewable Energy Agency (MARENA), Individual Consultant for UNESCO, and Research Associate associated with Sorbonne University in France and Deakin University in Australia. He has a PhD and 2 masters degrees from universities in the UK and Australia, and is the author of over 90 peer reviewed publications and 7 books on the subject of Smart, Sustainable and Future Cities. He is passionate about exploring transdisciplinary solutions for achieving sustainability policy.