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Flanders’ tech takes up the fight against plastic soup

Every year, 5 to 13 million tons of plastic ends up in the sea. Because plastic decomposes very slowly, it piles up, resulting in “plastic soup”. Once it's in the sea, little can be done about it. An extensive group of research centers, organizations and companies from Flanders join forces in the PLUXIN project. They want to use artificial intelligence and high-tech detection systems to better map out how plastic ends up in the sea via rivers and harbors.

The story of Boyan Slat and his Ocean Cleanup project is well documented. The harsh reality is that the project’s plastic cleanup systems only fish out 0.1% of all the plastic present in our oceans. Scientists are now focusing on solutions to efficiently intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the oceans. A recent study confirmed that 1,000 rivers are responsible for 80% of global oceanic plastic pollution.

From river to sea

In Flanders, several initiatives have already been launched to catch plastic litter in rivers and harbors. These initiatives, however useful, don't solve the problem entirely. The plastic that floats deeper or that has sunk to the bottom is not collected, and that is precisely where the most plastic pollution can be found.

To better address the problem, more knowledge is needed. Exactly how much plastic flows to the sea via rivers, and where exactly that plastic is at any given time is still unknown to science.

“It's quite complex,” explains Gert Everaert, data science manager at VLIZ (Flanders’ marine institute), in newspaper De Tijd. “Plastic moves differently according to its size, shape, composition, state of weathering, whether algae grows on it, water temperature, salinity, depth, etc. If you want to know exactly how and where to tackle the problem, you have to take all those factors into account.”

Business opportunities in Flanders

Gathering this crucial knowledge is the exact purpose of the PLUXIN project (Plastic Flux for Innovation and Business Opportunities in Flanders) , funded by the government of Flanders. It's a collaboration between scientists from VLIZ, the universities of Antwerp, Ghent and Leuven, Flanders’ strategic research center for sustainable technology VITO and 13 companies from the Blue Cluster (Xenics, Laboratory ECCA, Colruyt, the Port of Ostend, IMDC, North Sea Port, Antea Group, DEME, Multi, Aquafin, Enviros, dotOcean and the Port of Antwerp).

Its main ambition is to map plastic pollution in ports and rivers. This will involve the use of remote sensing and artificial intelligence to automatically detect and identify plastic waste. The information will form the basis of a usable model that precisely calculates the flow of plastic and identifies where it accumulates. Innovative solutions can then be devised based on this knowledge.

Think of developing techniques to purify sludge, or setting up systems involving swarms of robots that clean up the plastic.

Lisa Devrieze
senior science officer for Policy Information at VLIZ

Strong knowledge base

PLUXIN’s second aim is to look in detail at the possibilities for economic and social valorization. Thanks to the strong knowledge base and broad technological know-how of the project partners, the newly acquired knowledge will lead to innovative projects for companies and knowledge institutions from Flanders active in water works, observation, remediation and waste processing.

Unique about this project is that we map both micro- and macroplastics. We are doing this now for Flanders, but our model is being built for use in other areas. We have already presented the project at several international conferences and are receiving inquiries from the Baltic States to North America.

Gert Everaert
data science manager at VLIZ

The Pluxin model should be ready by autumn 2023.

More info

Reported by
De Tijd newspaper
13 July 2021

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