Plastic may be one of the most versatile materials on this planet, with a broad range of useful applications in almost every aspect of our daily lives, but it’s also one of the worst pollutants. It can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade and only a small fraction of what we produce ends up being recycled.
The unprecedented and ever-growing amount of plastic pollution is causing serious damage to the world’s ecosystems. Of all of them, the ocean and its lifeforms are suffering the most. Every year, over 8 tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean and by 2025, this number is expected to double.
Studies show that one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year from plastic ingestion, with a growing number of species facing a risk of extinction. Microplastic is even finding its way into the food we eat and the water we drink, and so far very little is known about the effects this could have on people’s health.
So where does data science come into this? A complex and overwhelming problem like plastic pollution can only be addressed with comprehensive and large-scale solutions. While such effort will undoubtedly have to involve a significant change in consumption habits and public policy, data and technology can give valuable insights to help better understand the issue, as well as innovative tools that can provide us with the technological framework to address it.
Big data and data visualization to raise awareness about the scope of the problem
According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum and PwC, the rapid development of key technologies involving big data and machine learning is opening up new possibilities for measuring and tracking Earth’s resources. It also allows for better coordination between researchers to share and analyse key data on pollution.
Using data analysis and data visualization, environmental scientists and organizations can gather, clean and analyse existing data on plastic pollution and use data visualization tools in order to gain better insights and raise awareness about the causes, effects and the scope of the issue.
In addition, scientists could train machine learning models to identify the key variables and make predictions that could be used in building long-term strategies to reduce ocean plastic.
Artificial intelligence and data science to understand pollution and natural systems
While data science can be of great help with analyzing the current impact of plastic waste and predicting its future development, one of the biggest problems is what we don’t know. Properly documenting data about plastic pollution can be challenging, given the rate at which it’s growing and how little we know about its long-term effects, but with increased computing power and AI algorithms, scientists can better understand natural systems and ocean pollution patterns to optimize interventions. Moreover, the democratization of AI and data science technologies means that emerging environmental actors can now produce valuable new knowledge on the matter.
The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit engineering environmental organization based in the Netherlands, that develops technology to extract plastic pollution from the oceans. The approach involves placing cleanup systems in ocean gyres to scoop up marine debris as the system is pushed by wind and current.
To solve the problem, you need to understand it first. The organization therefore also conducts scientific research into oceanic plastic pollution including two expeditions to the North Pacific Gyre, collecting huge amounts of data, and publicizing multiple scientific papers.
Satellite observation, image detection of ocean plastics and more…
The Ocean Cleanup uses satellite imaging and machine learning to help clean up and capture the 5 trillion pieces of plastic trash they have observed in the world’s “ocean garbage patches.” They estimate that within 5 years they could collect 50% of the ocean waste.
The Ocean Cleanup is currently partnering with Dataiku as part of our new initiative aimed at putting AI tools and skills behind non-profit causes called Ikig.ai. The program empowers non-profit organizations to unlock the full potential of their data in using AI for good.
Through their partnership and Ikig.ai, The Ocean Cleanup uses a free license of the Dataiku platform to maximize the use of their data and help them become more efficient and effective. The Dataiku Data Science team supports the organization with logistics, image detection, including identifying plastic in drone images and barrier identification, marketing operations, as well as day-to-day use of the Dataiku platform.
While innovation and technology can’t magically solve complex environmental and social issues such as ocean plastic pollution, democratizing data science and encouraging the use of AI for good can empower organizations and individuals to make a difference.