According to a 2018 report, Thailand was ranked among the top countries with poor waste management that released the largest amount of plastic waste into the ocean. With 80% of marine debris coming from our daily activities on land, it is clear that inefficient waste management should be our main concern. These plastics not only directly affect marine ecosystems, sea life, and coral reefs but also have a widespread impact on society, the economy, sanitation, and the quality of life. As such, trash that makes its way to the sea is a problem that is relevant to everyone.
Speaking of the marine debris problem in Thailand and its repercussions, Sopon Thongdee, Director-General of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR), the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said, “Marine litter has created devastating impacts in various areas. The most obvious effect is the degraded seascape, which, as watercourses become breeding grounds for germs, will then lead to sanitation problems. In addition, this marine pollution also creates economic and social impacts because it directly affects the tourism industry, local economies, and the overall manufacturing sector. Therefore, the reverberations are felt not only by those in coastal areas; marine debris is very much relevant to our lives.”
One thing we need to admit is although the government has implemented policy and put marine debris on the national agenda, the limited number of personnel that it has means that it is impossible for them to operate in every area across the country. Therefore, to successfully solve this problem, cooperation from the citizens and private businesses is indispensable. This has presented a perfect opportunity that SCG brought its expertise in innovation and collaborate with DMCR in its marine litter management efforts.
“While the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources specializes in oceanography, SCG has brought to the table its knowledge and expertise in innovation. We have joined forces to remove Thailand from the list of ocean-polluting countries. There are two types of marine debris: surface and below-surface. Eliminating the latter involves a huge investment because our officers have to dive into the river. A much easier approach is to intercept trash floating on the surface before it sinks. We have thus consulted SCG in creating floating litter traps.”
“We signed a memorandum with SCG in June to collaborate in 24 areas across 13 provinces. Once the operations are completed, we will then process the results. It should be noted that rather than heading to disposal right away, the collected trash is analyzed to determine the proportion of different waste types in order to formulate waste management measures. We hope that once the pilot program has been carried out in the 24 areas, the results will enable us to put together strategic measures.”
Having collaborated with the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources for over 10 years in various initiatives, including the Fish Home Project, SCG has, for this project, utilized its experience to build upon DMCR’s existing litter trap and improve its waste storage performance in actual working environments, resulting in a new invention known as SCG-DMCR Litter Trap. Namthip Samphowprasert, Brand Management and CSR Director of the Chemicals Business, SCG, recounted the beginning of this collaborative project.
“DMCR had already been deploying their litter traps in the Chao Phraya river. However, they found that the collected trash sometimes flowed back out of the traps with the tides. Therefore, we discussed ways to prevent this spillage, and SCG suggested that a mechanical lid that opens and closes with the tides should be added. We have since developed new litter traps and piloted them in 24 spots across 13 provinces. It is expected that in six months, the new inventions should be able to collect about 30 tons of marine debris.”
However, after successfully developing the new and enhanced litter trap, rather than resting on its laurels, SCG has also made waste management plans and created innovations to accommodate deployment in different environments.
“Another important consideration that DMCR and we have taken into account is the collected trash. To this end, we look into how waste is sorted in each area and educate the communities on waste separation. Then, based on the database, we plan how each type of waste can be reduced, reused, or sent to landfill for proper disposal to prevent leakage into rivers.”
From the successful litter trap came SCG Smart Litter Trap 4.0, developed by the engineering team of Rayong Engineering & Plant Service Co., Ltd. under the Chemicals Business, SCG. The new invention incorporates digital technology, including AI, IoT, and machine learning, to improve the efficiency and address the limitations faced by the previous model. Wuttichai Chaiyananrittikul, Innovation Technology Center Manager of Rayong Engineering & Plant Service Co., Ltd. told us about the development of this robotic litter trap.
“DMCR set a clear challenge for us, which was to not let a single piece of trash flow into the ocean, which could have untold impacts on marine life, and to ensure that our operation would not obstruct water transportation. Our team therefore had to invent a robot that could move efficiently, discern trash from other objects accurately, and put litter in the designated receptacle. It also had to be equipped with a communication system, so that all relevant parties could access its data to create an integrated management system and maximize its efficiency.”
To design and develop the perfect SCG Smart Litter Trap 4.0, Amarin Makchai, Equipment Technology Development & Simulation Engineer, and the engineering team had to rely on their expertise in various fields, from mechanical design, ship design, mechanism design, circuit design, to programming, which presented an arduous challenge for them.
“This robot has three key features. The first major feature is the smart object recognition system, which can still function very accurately despite the constant movement of both the litter and the robot in the river currents. Once it identifies an object as litter, the robot moves towards its and at the same time calculates the rate at which the litter is drifting away. When it is in an appropriate distance, the robot activates the conveyor belt in the front to draw the litter in. All of this is calculated with the program that we have designed.”
“The second feature is the aerators, which not only add oxygen to the water and benefit marine life but also prevent trash from getting caught in different parts of the robot.”
“The last key feature is the use of IoT to collect data from every sensor on the robot, on the amount of trash collected per trip and per day, to keep track of the working status and malfunctions, and most importantly, to detect if the robot moves outside the designated zone. All of these functions are enabled by internet connectivity.”
The team is truly proud of the invention not only because they have created an unprecedented innovation but also because the robot will help tackle environmental problems that affect both human beings and marine life.
Although public-private collaboration can alleviate the marine debris problem, the key to a sustainable solution still lies in public cooperation in not letting litter end up in the sea in the first place. A simple step that we can all take today is to use our resources to the fullest and dispose of them properly once we no longer need them. In addition, we can begin sorting household waste, so that it is ready to be processed by relevant organizations. These efforts will pay off and lead to a more habitable society for us and our posterity.