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Robot removes plastic from rivers

Students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) have tested technologies with which plastic waste is automatically removed from rivers. The young researchers, who want to tackle the global problem of marine pollution, are starting their project with rivers, so that the litter cannot get into the seas in the first place. With the help of a robot, the plastic bottles, toys or shoes fished out of rivers are to be automatically sorted and separated from biological materials.


The technology, which, according to the research team, differs from other water cleaning systems through the combination of different techniques, was tested in summer 2021 for the first time in a natural environment for several weeks on the river Limmat in Switzerland. A robotic arm was installed on a 60 sq.m. platform to separate the waste that arrives on the platform via a conveyor belt with the help of currents produced in the water. The robot recognises algae or wood and returns it to the water. The automated, robot-assisted sorting system is a world first, according to project manager, Joachim Schaeffer. The technology has not yet reached full maturity, because the robotic arm sometimes grabs at nothing. River currents also play a role. The findings obtained through the tests on the river Limmat are to be used for the further development of the systems. For 2021, there were plans to carry out further tests on larger rivers in Africa, India or South-East Asia.



  • (7/1/2021)
  • Photo: © ETH Zürich

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