Tag: pollution

Self-Driving Autonomous Boats to Clean the Ocean and Waterways

“There’s no one cleaning up after the party…”

Thesis: In addition to reducing pollution, we need to build and deploy floating clean-up robots in waterways and canals across the globe.

Plastic bottles are thought to take about 450 years to break down [1]. Leaving plastic waste in landfills is a less than ideal solution.

And besides, a lot of plastic never makes it to the landfill. Over years, large plastic bottles are broken down into tiny and even microscopic “microplastics” that are so embedded within the ocean, sand, dirt and topsoil of our world that they will never be removed.

Microplastics threaten Great Lakes, and not just the water
Micropplastics [4]

There are a few questions to consider before jumping in:

What should we really do with plastics, styrofoams, and other non-decomposable garbage?

How will we identify, collect, and transport these plastics to a safe and environmentally friendly final resting place?

From the landfill and back again:

Answering these questions is simple in theory, but more challenging in practice.

Plastics are made from petroleum, which comes from deep underground. Petroleum is like natural gas, crude oil, etc. At a chemical level, these petroleum resources are made of hydrocarbon polymers that can be used to make plastic.

Given that plastics are made from petroleum, which comes from underground, the logical place to put plastic waste is back where they came from – deep underground, between 3000 and 6000 feet. (That’s around 1 mile underground) [2]

It only makes sense that we should put them back where they came from. And perhaps the heat and pressure of Earth’s crust could accelerate the speed to which these waste products are transitioned back to crude petroleum.

But pulling petroleum out of the ground is a challenging business. Humans leverage advanced petroleum engineering technologies to extract these hydrocarbons. Imagine how much complicated engineering and drilling would be required to replace tons of plastic garbage materials back where they came from.

It would be next to impossible, and absolutely unaffordable. Its not going to happen.

Great pacific garbage patch. Source: B.parsons.edu.

Analogous to setting up for a party, when you set up and get ready for a party, you go buy food and drinks for your guests, setup decorations, plan games and activities, send out invitations and logistic information, etc.

Preparing for a party is fun and requires a bit of planning and effort.

After the party is over, however, there is a similar amount of un-fun effort required to clean up. There are dirty dishes and trash to be cleaned and disposed of. There may be spilled drinks on carpet or furniture, and you have to use something like Resolve carpet cleaner to restore them to their original condition.

The work required to clean up after the party is significantly more difficult than setting up for the party.

The problem with pollution in our world is that there is no one cleaning up after the party. And understandably so. Its a difficult, challenging, dirty, and expensive task.

Besides that, there’s no incentive to do so. Humans don’t want to clean up after other people all the time, yet everyone knows that all of us contribute to pollution.

This predicament is called the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

When you have a party at your house, you live in the direct vicinity of the mess that is left after a party. In the environment and world, however, people are able to artificially remove themselves from the mess created by society (aka pollution).

Although we have some vague perception that the great pacific garbage patch exists, because we don’t encounter it day to day as individuals, we are able to go on living our lives without feeling too bad about it.

Despite the complex, energy intensive manufacturing processes that are performed to make gasoline for cars and plastic goods, the vehicle exhaust, garbage and microplastics that enter our atmosphere and ocean have nowhere to go except accumulate in the environment.

Humans seem to have accepted the fact that these are are just left there.

But this is changing in some areas.

Some states like California and Hawaii have taken measures to prevent new plastic and garbage from entering the environment. Some popular prevention measures include smog inspections, no plastic grocery bags, no plastic straws, etc.

Prevention is good, but cleaning up is still needed.

We need an efficient and scalable way to clean up the Earth.

In order to relieve humans of the burden, perhaps we can leverage machines to take on the majority of plastic and garbage collection tasks associated with removing pollution from the environment.

There is good news. Humans have started doing this already. In Xi’an, China, there is a machine the size of a skyscraper whose sole purpose is to filter and purify the air.

Xi’an tower in China [3]

Its extremely exciting to see humans embarking on these types of developments. Although, as there is no natural incentive to build these (due to the Tragedy of the Commons), perhaps governments can create artificial incentives, offering contracts to engineering and development contractors to build similar skyscrapers.

But how about plastic waste? How might we begin to remove plastics from the environment?

To make any meaningful change, we must start somewhere. China began with the noble mission of reducing air pollution, and has built air filtration skyscrapers.

To focus on removing plastics from the environment, targeting the ocean is a great place to start.

Cleaning the oceans with autonomous boats.

To remove pollution from the oceans, we need solar-powered autonomous boats whose sole purpose is dragging filtration systems through the ocean, and collecting plastic pollution.

Identifying plastic material from organic material and avoiding biological life will be important. Perhaps some sort of artificial intelligence image recognition could help identify plastic waste in the water.

Where to begin? Logically, the best places to deploy these robots are in near the areas of primary pollution – harbors, water ways, sewage outputs, etc.

An inland stretch of the Ala Wai canal.

Take the Ala Wai boat harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The harbor connects the ocean to the Ala Wai canal.

A walk along the Ala Wai canal and a glance into the water will provide the onlooker with a glance at dirty water, old chairs, plastic bags, floating bottles, and more.

In a place as beautiful as Hawaii, its very sad to see any amount of garbage floating around.

And unfortunately, that water unfortunately carries bacteria, sewage, garbage, and more into the gorgeous turquoise waters surrounding the island of Oahu, and is ultimately dispersed across the entire world.

Remember, all the oceans are connected… despite different areas having different names, there is truly only one ocean on Earth. I saw a comedian on Instagram talk about the fact that there is truly only 1 ocean, and it made me think of this.

In terms of next steps, we need to find someone to build the robotic floating garbage collectors. It won’t be an easy task, but it is 100% possible.

Using an autonomy infrastructure tool such as Applied Intuition might help with the development of the software.

How much water can be filtered?

We should take a small area of the global water system like the Ala Wai canal, and deploy robotic cleaning ships here as a test. By measuring length * width we can calculate surface area, then performing various depth-measurements, we can take average depth and use this to calculate an estimate of total volume.

The throughput of each robotic boats will have an estimate of gallons per hour, or gallons per day etc.

In a perfect system, the boats will charge via some sort of docking station, or even run on solar power. They will need to be incredibly energy efficient, with no need to propel themselves too fast, they can remain largely stationary.

These may then be scaled up to larger ships that cruise across the ocean autonomously collecting garbage from the great pacific garbage patch and more.

To remove plastic from the ocean, it is only logical that we have water-filtration boats.

Final Thoughts

The white-paper presented above simply contains ideas. I am not doing these, I am just an idea maker.

And if you’ve made it to the end of this post, good news! These robots already do exist.

But if they already exist, why is there still so much plastic in the ocean? How much of an impact to these autonomous boats actually have on the reduction of plastic in the ocean?

And then of course a few follow up questions inevitably arise:

After collecting a large amount of the garbage, the important question then becomes what do we do with the plastic? It will be great to remove it from the ocean, but where do we put it as a final resting place?

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  1. Pelacase.com
  2. Where does crude oil come from
  3. Xi’an tower in China
  4. Microplastics

Accounting for Pollution: Garbage lasts Forever

You won’t hear an accountant mention pollution & accounting in the same sentence, but we are going to do so here, since we aren’t accountants. Garbage is what’s known as an economic bad, as opposed to most physical items, which are considered economic goods. Since garbage costs time and energy to remove, the possession of more garbage decreases the value of the one who possesses it. The phrase “throw it away” is misleading, comparable to fake news. Forget about diamonds – garbage quite literally is forever. We have nowhere to put it, so we resort to housing garbage in designated areas of our home planet Earth. As we continue generating this economic bad, garbage accumulation must result in a decrease in the value of planet Earth.

If you take a class in environmental science or search online, you’ll learn of the two rough categories of pollution:

Point and non-point source pollution —


Point-source originates from a definite, identifiable source. Think of it as original pollution. Examples of point-sources:

– factories
– sewage treatment plants
– electric power generation
– oil & gas extraction
– oil & gas refineries
– coal mining
– coal fired power generation
– air pollution
– mobile sources & transportation (planes, trains, automobiles)

This San Antonio de los buenos pipe dumps over 20 million gallons of sewage into the Pacific Ocean every single day. Although the origin has been identified, there is nothing that has been done. A solution may cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Humans, mammals, and creatures of every taxonomic rank experience pain. Illness affect us all, and each illness has the potential to reach a point of no return, at which point it becomes terminal for the organism. As of this moment, humans are inflicting a seemingly small amount of damage – analogous to an illness – on our earth via pollution. In an anthropomorphic sense, we are giving Earth a weakened immune system. It has the sniffles. As of now its not too late to get healthy. We can reduce the ill effects of pollution on our environment and atmosphere. And in doing so discover practices that promote a healthier Earth. Although not easy, we have to believe that it is possible. This is of utmost importance because if we aren’t careful, the small damages we are doing to earth may turn into something more serious. Its far easier to prevent lung cancer by refraining from smoking than it is to cure lung cancer after you get it. Likewise, it requires significantly more energy to clean up pollution than to prevent it. Prevention is better than clean up.

Non-point sources:

Non-point does not originate from a definite, identifiable source. It is a result of the diffusion of point-source pollution.

Run Off: Let’s look at an example. Think about the contribution of a cars in a city to non-point source pollution that accumulates on roads (let’s simplify by excluding air pollution from the equation).  in your city distribute substances (oil, gasoline, exaust, sludge, rubber, litter, debris, etc.) that accumulate on road surfaces. Individually, each car is a point-source. The aggregation of these chemicals being deposited by all 494,000 cars registered in San Francisco contributes to the category known as non-point source pollution.

Another example is runoff. The harmful chemicals that collect on any surface of earth, whether a road, parking lot, farm, originate at point-sources including cars, equipment, debris, agricultural materials, etc.

“When rain or melted snow moves over and through the ground, the water absorbs and assimilates any pollutants it comes into contact with.” (USEPA, 2004b)

Let us consider agricultural non-point sources, which are a result of the diffuse runoff that comes from the use of fertilizers, pesticides, or animal waste while growing crops and livestock.

Simple logic: to reduce the non-point source pollution that as a result of agriculture sources, we must stop it at the point of origin.

In this case, identifying each point source is too cumbersome and thus impractical… but we can paint a picture of what the point source associated with each non-point source generally looks like.

The pollution in the runoff example is the result of multiple locations over a period of days or weeks before rainfall, so you can’t pinpoint the exact source. Runoff is difficult to measure, identify, and control because it is the result of combined pollution sources that are received by the environment when water absorbs those chemicals which occurs over the entire surface of earth.

– land runoff
– precititation (acid rain)
– atmospheric deposition
– drainage
– leakage
– seepage (from underground storage tanks)
– hydrological modification (via rainfall and snowmelt)
– storm water runoff
– atmospheric deposition of contaminants, and
– storm water runoff from
– golf courses
– agricultural establishments
– forestry or construction sites

Acid Rain: Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) enter the atmostphere when fossil fuels are burned at factories or by internal combustion engines. These chemicals can cause acid rain. Acid rain occurs when sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) reacting in the atmosphere with water; it then returns to earth as polluted rain, fog, or snow. Acid rain is considered non-point source. The originating source of acid rain are the multitude of point-sources sending smog into the atmosphere that combines with clouds.

After examining how we define point and non-point sources, logic will allow us to realize that by reducing all the point-sources, we will eliminate non-point sources of pollution from appearing. This of course does not include pollution that has already entered the atmosphere. What’s there is there unless we can do something to remove it. Reducing point sources of pollution will thus stop non-point sources of pollution from accumulating, but we will still have cleanup to do. However, for now, to make the largest impact, humans should focus efforts toward reducing point-sources.

Seems simple enough. But what happens when we try to track pollution to discover where it is coming from?

Can we track pollution?

It turns out that tracking pollution to a single source is difficult.

How can we determine the source of microplastics pollution, the material washing up on the far-stretching beaches of Zlatni Rat, Croatia? By first examining the materials themselves, maybe we discover that a large percentage of it is made up of specific types of materials – for instance, polystyrene (aka styrofoam).

Going with this example, after disposal, a piece of styrofoam will break up into 999,999 pieces pretty quickly. These tiny polystyrene particles may have come from a piece of packaging, part of a cooler, a styrofoam cup, you name it. We can consider existing ocean currents  in the Mediterranean and near Croatia to consider what may have sent it there. Because the Mediterranean is a semi-closed body of water, attaching to the Atlantic only through the strait of Gibraltar on the west and to the Red Sea via the Suez Canal on the southeastern side, we can hypothesize that microplastic particles existing there also originated there. The Mediterranean is more or less a closed system.

It is much more likely that the point-source origin is located somewhere along the coast of the Mediterranean sea. By narrowing it down, we can then try to estimate travel time to determine how long it may have taken to get from one place to another. We can think about ocean currents that may have sent it there. We can try multiple things to try to get a sense for where exactly all of the rubbish is coming from.

But ultimately, it is absolutely impossible to know where exactly plastics on the beaches of Croatia originated.

Scientists have categorized this as “non-point source” pollution because its origin is unknown. In a disorganized universe that follows the second law of thermodynamics, microplastics get lost in the clutter of the environment and atmosphere. Nobody can identify the source.

But these microplastics came from somewhere. So by convention, these pieces of microscopic polystyrene are considered non-point and separate from point-sources of pollution.

Non-point source pollution results from the disorganization and diffusion of all the point-sources of pollution combined through the environment. Non-point source pollution is “redundant source pollution”. Current technology is too incompetent to identify the point-source tied to every non-point source.

Accounting for pollution

In 1769, when James Watt patented the first steam engine. Voila, air pollution was amplified. With the growth of transportation technology as well as the human population since that date, pollution has progressively gotten worse as we’ve continued polluting the earth for at least 250 years.

Imagine for a second that we want to calculate how much pollution has ever occurred in the history of the world between now and forever-ago. To measure and account for quantity of those harmful substances in our environment, it would be helpful to differentiate between point and non-point because to avoid redundancy. Although an impossible feat in practice, to do so in theory, we would simply need to account for pollution arising from every single point-source in human history. By summing up pollution from each and every the point source ever, we would get an exact amount of total historical pollution (THP). We don’t need to factor in non-point source, because it would be counted twice.

(Point Source) + (Non Point source) > THP

THP is equal to the sum of all point sources of pollution from time = year 1700, to time = year 2018.

THP = ∑ (all point-sources of pollution) = Total Point-Source Pollution


Two broad types of pollution have been discussed briefly. When we consider which efforts will most greatly impact the future of humanity and help us create a clean, healthy environment, it can be hard to say which efforts are most effective.

The intention is not to say one category of pollution is worse or more benign than the other. The purpose is to identify the difference between pollution that has already entered the ecosystem, and pollution that is currently entering the ecosystem.

Before taking efforts to eliminate it, let’s realize there are different strategic purposes to reduction of each.

  1. The value in eliminating non-point source pollution: stop pollution from diffusing and spreading to new areas, and remove old, existing pollution from our environment. Pollution that is already there.
  2. Value in eliminating point-source pollution: prevent future pollution from entering out atmosphere and environment in the first place! Pollution that is entering the environment right now and into the future.

It is far easier to prevent a problem than it is to fix a problem.

In order to minimize human contribution to the pollution problem, humans must stop putting it into the ecosystem in the first place.

When calculating amounts of pollution, non-point source pollution has already been accounted for via the summation of all point sources. Point source pollution that has diffused throughout the environment can no longer be traced, so we duplicate it if we add them together. In theory, non-point source pollution is redundant and already accounted for, so we can essentially ignore it when accounting for how much pollution we create.

With enough thought and research, a point source can be broken down into its component point-sources. If you think you have a non-point source, ask yourself: What do I need to do to identify the original source?

Who has the power? The decision makers in the agriculture industry control what pesticides and fertilizers are used, as well as what happens to animal waste. In addition, every automobile manufacturer . on the business side of a a farm or agricultural facility. But as comsumers, we have the power to choose where our dollars go. Each dollar spent is like casting a vote for which business practices we will incentivize. If we purchase products that contribute to jit, we are playing our small but incremental role in the continuation of

For the future of our species, we must be focus on identifying point-sources in order to reduce the amount of pollution at its origin, rather than after-the-fact removal. If you are interested in discussing this further, please contact us.