How Do You Reduce Plastic Waste in Oceans?

When Varun Saikia, a young high school student from Gujarat, India, was 11 years old, he learned about a whale in Thailand that choked to death from eating plastic that had been discarded in the ocean.

“I had read that article and it disturbed me a lot, and that basically triggered me to look and explore into this problem that was a whole new world for me,” Saikia told AccuWeather National Reporter Jillian Angeline. “I did not know that this problem existed in my life.”

Saikia then got to work researching pollution around the world, paying special attention to where he grew up. The Ganges River, the largest river in India, carries about 3 billion microplastic particles into the Indian Ocean every day, according to a study led by National Geographic.

Saikia also learned about the garbage patches — concentrations of marine debris — across the Pacific Ocean that are created by ocean currents.

“Then I looked around and I was like, ‘Wow, isn’t this obvious? I see plastic everywhere,'” Saikia said.

“So I made a prototype out of plastic bottles and plastic boxes and I tested it in a mini pool, and then I iterated the model and got to a 5-foot-long device that could collect about 2.5-3 kg of plastic waste.”

He called this first prototype Makara, Sanskrit for crocodile, due to it having a “mouth” and “tail” similar to a real croc. It took years of Saikia improving on Makara to create his newest design, Flipper, which can operate on its own or attach to a ship. He estimates it can hold anywhere from about 1,000 pounds to several hundred tons of plastic waste, depending on how it’s deployed.

The design is still in the prototyping phase, but Saikia’s website claims that 100 ships equipped with Flipper technology can clean up the Pacific garbage patches in about a year. In addition, Saikia said this new design will do more than just take out the trash.

“I am currently working towards making Flipper not only a plastic waste collection device, but also a device that can collect data simultaneously,” he said.

The type of plastic it collects and the location where it was collected will be logged and analyzed to help make future collections more efficient, he added. To keep fish and ocean mammals from getting caught in the net, it will be outfitted with ultrasonic emitters that make critters avoid the area.

Saikia said he funded his first prototypes out of pocket, but has now received government grants from his home state of Gujarat, located on the coast of western India, and expanded his one-man operation to a handful of engineers. Once he finishes high school, the innovative student said he dreams of attending a prestigious program in the United States to take his project worldwide.

“There are a few schools on my mind,” he said. “MIT is definitely my dream school. I’m going to apply to MIT, then Stanford. [The] University of Texas at Austin has an amazing environmental engineering program. So I’m keen on applying to these universities.”

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