Beachcomber vs bot: the battle to clean up our beaches

Two councils on different sides of the world are taking very different approaches to keeping their beaches clean.

When beachgoers next gather for an annual clean up on Belle Isle in Michigan, they will have company. BeBot, a remote control robot built by French company Searial Cleaners, will work alongside volunteers to clear up kilos of plastic bottles and other litter left behind on the sand. 

The Belle Isle bot is the latest in a line of mechanical marvels put to work by the City of Detroit to curb a tsunami of rubbish throughout Michigan’s Great Lakes region. Around five million people frequent Belle Isle every year, leaving behind about 4000 kilograms of litter. Some 10 thousand kilos of plastic pollution was scooped out of the lakes in 2023.

The bot is solar powered and can clean about 10 thousand square metres every hour. Belle Isle Conservancy director of sustainability and advocacy Genevieve Rattray,told local news BeBot can shift through the sand a couple of inches deep to scoop up cigarette butts, plastic water-bottle caps and beach toys.

“This robot allows us to take our cleanup efforts a little bit deeper, literally a little bit deeper, and really remove a lot of that plastic pollution and litter pollution that is buried and impacting our environment as a result,” Rattray said.

Closer to home, another beachside council is turning its back on machine power in favour of the human element. Beaches on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula will be solely cleaned by hand over the next 12 months after research found the mechanical rakes the council had been using only picked up about 40 percent of litter. Instead of picking up the majority of the litter, the rake broke it into smaller pieces and reburied it in the sand.

Mayor Simon Brookes labelled the findings “disappointing” and said the council was keen to discover the best way to keep its beaches clean.

“We believe this is the first trial of its kind for local government. The trial will give us much better localised information on the types of rubbish left on our beaches, where it comes from and where the peak periods and hot spots are. This will enable us to refine our beach cleaning program to ensure it’s as efficient and effective as possible,” Brookes said. 

The preliminary research found 85 percent of the material mechanically collected and taken for waste disposal was organic, resulting in unnecessarily high waste disposal fees and a poorer environmental outcome. There are significant environmental benefits to keeping seaweed where it belongs, as it can prevent erosion and provides vital food and shelter for animals such as shorebirds and other marine species.

The trial will run from 1 July 2024. Brooks said the Mornington Peninsula shire was grateful to the volunteers who gave up so much of their time to help keep the beaches tidy, but picking up litter was only one part of their strategy.

“Of course, cleaning is only one part of the equation. The other is encouraging people not to leave their rubbish on the beach in the first place.”

Back in Michigan, Konner Petz, mobility strategist for the City of Detroit, said he saw the future of beach cleaning as being a collaboration between human and machine.

“Even though we have this amazing technology that can dredge into the sand and operate at very fast speeds picking up litter, I think that the human element is still very important and the communal element is still very important,” Petz said.

“It’s really important from a community standpoint to actually have [volunteers] pick up alongside BeBot rather than one or the other.”

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

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