Avid surfer invents device to curb plastic pollution
When Austen Anderson graduated from Texas A&M University at Galveston in 2016 with a degree in marine biology, he started organizing beach clean-ups almost immediately.
An avid surfer, Anderson grew up in the Galveston area watching the Gulf of Mexico become a dumping ground for plastic and other trash, and couldn’t live with watching it, he said.
Anderson also adopted a small section of beach at Pelican Island on the bay side, a cove that filled up daily with trash washed over from Houston and cast off of passing ships.
On a foggy February morning, Anderson and two friends filled buckets with trash for several hours at the Pelican Island site. Since he first started picking up trash on beaches, he and his friends have collected more than 6,000 pounds of garbage, he said.
“The most common trash is plastic water bottles,” Anderson said. On this morning, he picked up several that had never been opened as well as some with water still in them, their caps screwed on tight.
Anderson participated in marine biology camps after graduating college, and at one in North Carolina he became familiar with the Plastic Ocean Project, a community education program aimed at reusing plastics and informing the public about the problem of trash-polluted waters. That program was inspired by a California-based program, 5 Gyres.
5 Gyres was the first organization to research plastic pollution in all five main ocean gyres or circulation areas, and the first to determine that nearly 270,000 metric tons or 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic exist on the surface of the world’s oceans.
Anderson was inspired, too, and founded his own ocean trash removal program, Mountain Ocean Project in Galveston. He promotes it and signs up volunteers at the Galveston’s Own Farmers Market and online.
“There’s like thousands of pounds of trash over here,” Anderson said, pulling up a plastic rope from the Pelican Island beach. “Last time, we picked up over 300 pounds in less than an hour.”
Picking up trash got Anderson thinking about how to keep it out of the water, and he came up with the idea for a storm drain filter he calls the Eco Flood Protector. In essence, it’s a collapsible storm drain filter that would prevent trash from clogging up storm drains and causing flooding.
“It’s like a lawnmower bag that goes on the storm drain,” he said. “It’s collapsible and you can pull it out from the street. It has two compartments and when it goes down the storm drain, down a ramp at a 65-degree angle, small items will get stuck and larger, recyclable items will separate out through gravity and surface tension.”
Anderson’s working to raise money to hire an engineer and buy materials to construct a prototype of his Eco Flood Protector, a project he hopes to see built at his alma mater, he said. He’ll have to raise $6,000 on the front end, then $6,000 more to support marketing and sales, he said.
“It’s a giant problem and there aren’t many solutions to stopping trash from getting in the ocean,” he said. “Once it enters our waterways, it’s harder to collect it.”
Plastics clog storm drains all around the bay, causing costly clean-outs and manpower, he said.
“I’ve got a friend who works in the Deer Park area pulling plastic out of drains,” Anderson said. “He told me if they had my storm drain filter, he wouldn’t be clocking so many overtime hours.”
He gestured toward the bay, into the fog, in the general direction of the mainland.
“Most of this stuff comes all the way from Houston,” he said.
Stopping the flow of plastic into open waterways at the opening of a storm drain is a good first step, but it’s not the most important step, he said.
“The source of the problem is the consumer using all this plastic in the first place,” he said. “We need to change how people think about plastic and how they use it.”
Anderson is mulling over ideas for reusable plastics to replace those that get tossed away so thoughtlessly, but first he wants to get the Eco Flood Protector off the ground, he said.
“With my system, we could figure out which storm drains clog and install the filters,” he said.
“You don’t need heavy machinery, just the device.”