Seabins – Clearing the waste of the ocean

Oceanic waste is a huge problem, and it’s growing by the year. Despite all the warnings, the rate of global plastic production continues to rise, and you only need to visit a popular beach to see the extent of the problem. Fish and seabirds alike are frequently found dead, with plastic in their digestive systems, and the ocean is blighted by floating islands of the stuff, centuries away from even beginning to decompose.

The primary approach to solving the problem is obvious, but daunting – significantly downsize plastic production and upscale recycling. The latter is already happening, but nowhere near enough to counteract the gargantuan scale of plastic production, and more to the point, the scope for reusing many types of consumer plastic is actually pretty narrow. 
Even if, by some miracle, we were able to stem the tide of plastic production and discarding to the point where it balances things out again, there would still be millions upon millions of metric tons of plastic still out on the ocean, and no, I’m not exaggerating. Beach clearing and trawling will only get you so far when there’s just so much of it, so one idea is to create a kind of device which can be placed in the water and just left to get on with the task at hand.
Enter the ‘Seabin’, an ingenious little solution invented by two Aussie surfers – Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski – and it’s currently in the final research phase. At a glance, it just looks like a bin with a yellow rim and a sleek chrome finish, but there’s a lot more than meets the eye. They are fitted to pontoons, lowered until the rim is just slightly beneath the surface and then a suction engine whirs to life, drawing waste inside until the bag is full. 
The trash can then be sorted and recycled. Because the bin sits so close to the surface, fish aren’t in any danger of being mistakenly sucked in, as extensive tests have proven. The pump is solar powered, and has been tested in several countries already, with many marine authorities across the world saying that they also want to try it out. The team are looking at making them available in 17 countries from 2017 onwards.
If these wonderful little bins could be distributed in a more widespread manner, they could provide an effective solution to the issue, at least inland where they can easily be accessed and emptied on a regular basis. The open ocean is another issue entirely, but there’s no reason why the technology couldn’t be refitted to work on a larger scale, with fleets of bins cast out, and then collected at the end of the day by large ships.
Of course, active solutions can’t work all by themselves, and the introduction of technology like this has to be mirrored by the reductions in consumption I was talking about before. The Seabins can act as a barrier between the trash and getting out onto the open ocean, but even if they were on literally every beach, marina and pontoon in the world, trash would still find its way out to sea. We need companies to reduce their plastic footprint, or all the research and development in the world simply won’t be enough. The Olympics are evidence enough of that.


Water in religion

Water holds special significance in many cultures and religions, primarily due to its cleansing, life-giving properties. Believers of various religions use water in ritual washing to purify themselves, both literally and spiritually, in preparation for worship or contemplation. 
Water is widely regarded as one of the basic elements, along with fire, earth, air, and sometimes space, which has led to it being considered all over the world as the sacred foundation of all life.
Sacred texts such as the Qur’an, Bible, and Vedas are full of imagery that uses water, the abundance or lack of it, to explain and symbolise spiritual health and blessings.  Floods, rains, storms, waves, aridity and drought feature heavily, and carry particular relevance for cultures living in harsh desert climates, for whom water is the essential, precious resource.
The belief that water is the source of life, and point of origin and creation, is shared by many religions. The Hindu text Rig-Veda describes how ‘in the beginning everything was like the sea and without light.’ Water precedes the creation of life and light, and initiates the process, as the creator god Brahma was born from the water (jal). 
The Bible’s account offers a similar picture: ‘The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters.’ The spirit of God was said to hover over the waters before the creation of anything else.  
In the Qur’an, it says that every living thing was made from water, which existed before anything else as the seat of God: ‘And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and his Throne was upon water.’
The Native American Hurons tell that in the beginning there was only one water and the water animals that lived in it. A divine woman fell from the sky and animals dove down to fetch earth to make her some land to live on.
Ceremonies and Washing Rituals
Many ceremonies in Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Shinto, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and countless others involve water in some way. Believers are often immersed, sprinkled, or washed in pure water before participation in marriage, death, birth, and affirmations of faith, among others.
For many, bathing a newborn baby is an important ritual. Hindus practice different ceremonies for birth, depending on the region. One involves washing the child in milk and water from the sacred river Ganges to purify and cleanse sins from its past lives. Christians believe baptising or christening a baby welcomes them into the church family and washes away original sin. 
In Sikhism, believers have an Amrit ceremony when they are old enough to commit to their faith. Sweet water stirred with a double-edged sword is drunk and sprinkled on the hair and eyes.
Washing is an important part of everyday prayer for Muslim, Shinto, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Hindu worshippers, who cleanse themselves of pollution and impurity before offering their devotion.
Wudu is the essential washing of hands, arms, face, ears nose, head, and feet that Muslims must perform before Salaat. It must be repeated if an action is carried out that nullifies Wudu, such as passing gas, urination, bleeding, natural discharge, and deep sleep. 
Purification called Harae is necessary before a Shinto worshipper can bring an offering to the Kami, revered gods that inhabit natural spaces, like mountains, trees and rocks. Waterfalls are sacred, and to stand under one is a cleansing ritual.
Concerns of purity are central to Zoroastrianism, and the ritual of padyab-kusti is carried out to cleanse minor pollutions. More serious pollutions such as touching a dead body require a nine day baresnum ceremony, involving priests’ assistance in prayer and washing.   
The Torah outlines the need for believers to wash their hands and feet in ‘living water’, which can be in a sea, river, spring, or special bath called a mitveh, before approaching God. 
Hindu temples are built near a water source so that one can bathe before entering the place of worship, and carry out Sodhana purifications. Pilgrimage sites are often found on riverbanks, especially as the point where rivers converge is regarded as sacred. Water is involved in all ceremonies in Hinduism.
Water can sometimes not be such a prominent feature in Buddhist practices, as it is believed that ritual practices pose a distraction from the goal of spiritual enlightenment. However, yonchap are water offerings in Tibetan homes that can encourage one to give with an open heart. 
In Buddhist funerals, there is a tradition of pouring water into a bowl near the deceased, so that it overflows. Monks may recite the words: ‘As the rains fill the rivers and overflow into the ocean, so likewise may what is given here reach the departed.’
Sacred water sites
Many religions have bodies of water or related sites that are historically or spiritually significant, and can be popular sites for pilgrims to visit.

  • There are seven rivers in India that are considered sacred, and seen as maternal, life-giving female deities: Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. 
  • The most famous river is the Ganges, believed to be the most sacred river in India. Millions travel to the Ganges to wash, be cleansed and healed. Some Hindus see the Ganges as a crucial site of pilgrimage, and believe that a life is incomplete without bathing in the river at least once. Families often keep a vial of water from the Ganges in the home.
  • The Well of Zamzam is a site of pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where Muslims go to drink the sacred water. It is believed that the well is a miracle source of water, which sprung up to quench the thirst of Ishmael, son of Abraham, thousands of years ago. The well lies 20m east of the Kaaba, the holiest place in Islam, and is visited as part of the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages. 
  • Many Christians consider the Sea of Galilee to be a special place of pilgrimage, as this is the region around which Jesus’ ministry centred. The river Jordan is particularly visited as the site where Jesus baptised and was himself baptised by John.
  • Lake Titicaca in the Andes is a sacred site for Inca people as, according to ancient myths, the sun first emerged from this lake and blessed it.
  • Cenotes, or natural pits of water, are important in Mayan culture, thought to offer access to the watery underworld. Chichén Itzá is the most famous cenote, and one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico.

This is only a brief overview of the religious weight of water. There is much more to be said and gained from learning about how cultures revere water in diverse traditions.

Microbial fuel cells – The future of clean water?

Perhaps the biggest issue with water treatment plants is the amount of energy they use. On average, it takes 1.5 kilowatt-hours to remove even a kilogram of contaminant from polluted water. If you look at that in terms of water treatment on a national or international scale, it accounts for a huge chunk of energy demand. 
The solution is to make water treatment a self-sustaining process, and for the first time it looks like we might have found a way to do that. The name of the game is biotechnology; we already use engineered biological processes for food production, medicine and more recently fuel. We already know that biological processes can be manipulated to produce energy, so what if they could form a self-powering treatment system.
That’s exactly what Boston-based company Cambrian Innovation have done. In partnership with the US Army, they have developed ‘BioVolt’, a wastewater treatment system which generates the energy needed to power itself, with no electrical input necessary. The microbes themselves are electrically active, and they catalyse a fuel cell process which treats wastewater and generates electricity all at once. What’s more, a large facility isn’t needed to house such a system; it can be scaled down the point where you can carry it around in a portable container.
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So already this sounds pretty amazing, but there’s more. The BioVolt system is now being regarded as a blueprint for even more advanced developments in the near future. The active microbe strains in the BioVolt system are ‘Geobacter’ and ‘Shewanella’, both of them essentially consume pure energy, coaxed from rocks and metals. It stands to reason, all bacteria deal with the electrons present in sugars and other minerals, these ones just cut out the middle man, and in this way they can be grown directly on electrodes. 
The applications of this are widespread and exciting, already a larger pilot system for water treatment is being built in Tijuana, and this one will also be able to remove pharmaceutical waste from the water.
In either case, systems like these have the potential to clear tens of thousands of litres of contaminated water every day, and act as a kind of equivalent/counterpart to solar and wind energy. Moreover, any kind of biological system which requires energy to function could be considered for the BioVolt treatment, as microbes which consume pure energy could, in theory, carry on forever. 

Callum Davies
Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.