At a beach cleanup, volunteers or workers usually focus on picking up pieces of trash like plastic water bottles or food packaging. But the sand is often filled with the tinier scraps of plastic that are left behind as those items break down. And while it’s possible to begin to collect them—using a mesh screen to sift pieces of plastic from the sand—it’s a gargantuan task.
A new robot called the BeBot is designed to help clean up smaller plastic waste, traveling back and forth on beach surfaces sifting through the sand’s top layer. “It’s designed for areas that have relatively clean beaches but large amounts of microplastics,” says Alex Schulze, cofounder and CEO of 4Ocean, which makes products from plastic collected from the ocean, beaches, and rivers, and has partnered with Poralu Marine, the developer of the robot.
Large equipment like diesel-powered tractors or a giant vacuum that sucks up plastic from the sand are sometimes also used for beach cleanups. But the BeBot, which runs on batteries connected to a solar panel, is quieter and much smaller, so it’s less likely to disturb wildlife or beachgoers. As the BeBot travels back and forth, covering an area roughly three-fifths the size of a football field each hour, it sifts the top layer of sand through a screen, capturing anything larger than a square centimeter, from pieces of old packaging to cigarette butts. It also picks up seashells and pebbles, so after the machine is full, someone needs to sort through the contents to separate recyclable plastic and trash from materials that can return to the sand. That’s still time consuming, but much faster than trying to sift through each part of the beach manually.