HORIZON 2020 - This project was funded by the European Union as part of their agenda to encourage investment from industry and get the brains of Europe thinking about different ways of cleaning up the mess we've made. The cost of accepting money from the EU is giving away your ideas by way of collaborative research. But in this case there is no means to charge for cleaning up services, where the international community at large are the culprits and nobody is accepting responsibility for marine pollution, despite the fact it is illegal to dump plastic in the sea.



A compact, unmanned, renewables-powered and self-sufficient vessel able to pick up marine litter and to treat it on board for volume reduction and energy recovery




The project intends to explore the feasibility of introducing to the market Sea Litter Critters, a compact, unmanned, renewables-powered and self sufficient marine litter collection and treatment vessel based on a patent pending device treating waste thermally with plasma technology and no harmful emissions. This device is designed to operate near the shores especially nearer tourist facilities substituting the mechanical collection of litter currently adopted. By picking up litter (plastic debris mostly) near the point of entry, Sea Litter Critters contribute to minimising the pollution risks linked to plastic in the sea, where plastic items become brittle and break down into small particles, but basically never dissolve. Such particles can be eaten by zooplankton thus enter the food chain. Therefore picking up plastic debris while still intact and as soon as possible after their disposal supports and complement in the short term all the high level policy actions for litter prevention (minimisation of waste, use of biodegradable plastic, awareness raising, beach clean up days etc.).


This study aims to check the attractiveness of the innovation to the market involving potential customers (coast towns, associations of tourist and fishing ports and marinas, representatives from the cruise and hotels industry, marine natural reserves authorities). The first markets identified are on the Mediterranean Sea, which is at the center of a very highly populated area of the World with many Countries relying mostly on tourism. Studies confirm that the Med has mostly marine litter derived from this economic activity and up to 80% of it originating from land. Italy, with its over 7600km long coastline and a strong dependency upon tourism, will be the first market, followed suit by France and Croatia and then Spain and Greece. After a 3 year phase to cover development, industrialisation and commercialisation, production is expected to start in 2019, with employment of 17 new staff.




Cleaning up with the Sea Litter Critter

Could an automated ‘critter’ eat up and process litter at sea using plasma technology? One EU-funded project set to work to find out.

More than 150 million tonnes of plastic have accumulated in the world's oceans, with over 4.5 million tonnes added each year. It becomes most problematic when its breaks up into tiny microparticles that are then ingested by sea creatures and so enter the food chain. A concept developed by the EU-funded SEA LITTER CRITTERS project could provide a solution to cleaning up this sea litter. Its feasibility study looked at the market appeal of a small automated waste collection vessel called the ‘Sea Litter Critter’, which not only picks up litter, but treats it on-board. Project coordinator Ilaria Schiavi explains that the idea for the device came from observing a marine litter collection vessel operating at an Italian tourist resort: ‘It was paid for by a local tourist association concerned that dirty beaches would put off visitors, but the high costs meant the vessel could only be used when there were significant quantities of debris.’


This gave IRIS, a small start up based in Turin, Italy, the idea to use their expertise in plasma technology to come up with an improved solution. Using plasma - a very high temperature, very energetic state of matter - solid waste can be completely broken down with no risk of dioxines and furans emissions, which can form in other combustion-based waste treatment methods. At SEA LITTER CRITTERS’s core is IRIS’s small scale pyrolizer unit (patent pending), which treats thermally solid waste and transforms it into syngas, a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane and a residue which can be recycled as aggregate for road material or concrete. The syngas could be exploited for producing electricity or fuelling the vessel’s motor. Currently a fully unmanned, automated device is not possible due to regulatory and technology limitations but Schiavi says, ‘Ideally, once automated navigation is fully developed, this vessel could be left to hoover up marine litter day and night.’


In their feasibility study the team commissioned specific market research to ascertain if the device was attractive to coastal resorts, municipalities and aquaculture enterprises. While the idea was found to be of interest to the market, the main challenge was found to be securing the necessary investment for such equipment. Schiavi notes, ‘Currently, marine litter is everybody’s problem but nobody wants to pay for cleaning it up, and there are no regulations stipulating who should be dealing with it.’ Changes to the current regulatory climate, could kick-start a market for this device, as Schiavi explains. ‘The EU is very active on the subject as the problem is growing to a level likely to affect European industries such as fishing. So we expect that the regulatory landscape will change, and there will be a requirement for local authorities to act.’ The project team is working towards developing a sea-ready vehicle to be tested within the next four years. It expects disposal of marine litter through thermal treatment will have a place in the future management framework for materials that cannot be recycled or for emergency situations such as spills and flooding events.




DIAGRAM - This drawing gives you an idea of scale, should a prototype ever be built. It looks to be slightly smaller than the coastal version of SeaVax. IRIS are partners on the CLAIM plastic project that was ongoing in 2019.





Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Sea Litter Critters (A compact, unmanned, renewables-powered and self-sufficient vessel able to pick up marine litter and to treat it on board for volume reduction and energy recovery)

Reporting period: 2016-03-01 to 2016-08-31 - Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Sea Litter Critters is a compact, unmanned, renewables-powered and self-sufficient vessel able to pick up marine litter and to treat it on board for volume reduction and energy recovery.

Problem to be solved

Coastal and marine human activities, from tourism to transport by ship, generate considerable quantities of waste, which has the potential to contaminate the marine environment. This type of waste ends up as marine litter, which enters the marine and coastal environment directly or it is transported to the sea and coast from land by rivers, draining or sewage systems or winds. Because of the continuum nature of the sea, marine litter occurs worldwide in densely populated areas as well as remote regions such as the Antarctic, in oceanic gyres, on shorelines and in the deep sea.


It affects the whole water column from the surface to the seabed. It causes environmental problems (death of marine animals by entanglement and ingestion; smothering of marine vegetation and corals; contamination of sea environment by toxic components released through break up; transport of alien species etc.), economic problems (reducing the recreational value of water and coast therefore attractiveness for tourists, affecting fishing and fish farming, damaging boats) and social problems (pollutants and toxins entering the food chain through ingestion by sea creatures, from plankton to larger fish, with consequent effects on human health). Globally, it is not known with confidence how much litter is currently within the sea system nor how much is entering the sea annually, although a report published in January by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that in a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish [by weight].

At European level, marine litter is considered one of the indicators of the Good Environmental Status of the seas (Descriptor 10 of the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive ) and a specific workgroup has been set up to define the monitoring protocols while Member States initiate actions on awareness raising and minimisation activities. Each Regional Sea sees local communities/NGOs organising initiatives on a voluntary basis, like clean up days or litter fishing. From those, different types of litter are found, depending for example on the use of the sea and the morphology of the basin: the Mediterranean sea, highly trafficked by cruises/ferries and with popular beaches has on average mostly litter derived from tourist activities and up to 80% of the litter originates mostly from land, while the North Atlantic, highly trafficked with commercial boats, has mostly litter deriving from either fishing activities or loss of cargo.


All studies highlight that plastic is the most common type of material found amongst the litter items, be it household items to fishing gear lost at sea. This poses a major problem as plastic is a persistent and pervasive pollutant: in such a harsh environment, plastic items become brittle and break down into small particles, but basically never dissolve. The particles can be eaten by zooplankton thus bringing toxins into the foodchain. Therefore, actions to prevent plastic entering the sea (minimisation of waste, use of biodegradable plastic, awareness raising) as well as actions to minimise the effects it has on the environment are required.


Picking up litter while it is still intact, like through beach clean up days or the KIMO’s Fishing for Litter initiatives, helps in reducing the risk of plastic breaking down into finely dispersed particles, as well as mitigating the effects, e.g. on the recreational value of the coast, and raising awareness. Alongside these high profile environmental initiatives, there is evidence of stakeholders, particularly from the tourist sector, taking matters on their hand: Local Authorities organise themselves, often in cooperation with local retailers and hotels.




During the feasibility study IRIS undertook the following activities:

- Market analysis: mainly commissioned out to a specialist analyst;

- Stakeholders involvement: mainly through participation to the EMD and other contacts;

- Technology analysis: to understand which components are currently commercially available;

- Business development plan refining: to better define the business idea on the basis of the findings.

IRIS commissioned a full market research to Transparent Research, who analyzed the automated marine debris collection equipment market for the Mediterranean and attempted a forecast for the period 2018–2024. The brief given to the analysts was to gather all the prevalent trends across all the Mediterranean countries anticipated to play a major role in the increasing adoption level of the market over the forecast period.


It also required a study of key drivers, restraints, and opportunities expected to influence the market growth during the said period. Finally, it was requested to provide industry development and product concept testing analysis of the automated marine debris collection equipment market based on automation level and provision for waste treatment. IRIS also interviewed representatives of the committee Consorzio Promotour, grouping retailers, hoteliers and beach management companies in the Blue Flag municipality of Celle Ligure, on the Italian Riviera. The Consorzio manages a service for the cleaning of the sea in front of the beaches, undertaken by a small boat that travels along the coast using a net to trap floating debris.


Other stakeholders contacted directly included NGOs working on marine environment protection and Authorities/business representatives of coastal areas, as well as Universities/research centres and innovative SMEs with interesting technologies. IRIS also took part to the European Maritime Day in Turku, Finland, learning about the sector, meeting potential suppliers/industrial partners and attending workshops on marine litter.

As IRIS specialises in small sale solid waste thermal treatment, it has been looking for potential partners to supply/develop the components of the SLC vessel: from renewable sources-powered unmanned vessels able to navigate autonomously, to vision and navigation systems. A number of potential partners supply have been found and contacted. The regulatory issues linked with fully autonomous navigation of unmanned vessels can be overcome with the adoption of remote controlled systems for the near-coast navigation, although transmission of data for formulating the best navigation needs to be looked at.

IRIS used the information collected for refining its business plan, also with the assistance of the SME Instrument Business Coach, who also supported IRIS in a review of its strategy.




Through the Phase1 Feasibility study IRIS was able to understand better the market thanks to a specialist market analysis, complemented by direct contacts with stakeholders, from tourist resorts already collecting litter with skimmer-boats to NGOs and fisherme involved in clean-up initiatives and/or projects. This allowed to make an estimate of a first section of the market and identify potential other customers and related business model. With respect to the start of Phase 1, IRIS has therefore been able to verify the profitability of its business idea with more market information.

From a technological point of view, IRIS has understood that there are regulatory barriers to the ideal navigation system for Sea Litter Critters but that the sector is exploring the technology of fully autonomous unmanned vessels of all sizes, including large cargo ships, hence the normative will be soon reviewed to accommodate for these advances. By finding developers of unmanned - fully autonomous to remote-controlled - vessels already exploiting sun and wind energy for their electric motors, IRIS has identified suitable platforms for the Sea Litter Critter vessel as well as potential partners and suppliers with interesting technologies.

IRIS has been able to contact different stakeholders through Phase 1 gathering interest in its solution and ascertaining the impact that its implementation might have. Although marine litter prevention is the common political objective and recycling of collected debris is considered the preferred management solution, there are practical barriers (fouling and degradation of plastics in the sea, too much variety of materials, limited storage space at ports) and market conditions (lack of processors) that currently limit the uptake of this practice. An environmental balance study will be undertaken in preparation for a Phase 2 application to demonstrate how the Sea Litter Critters solution stands against collection, download at port and then best (= recycling) and current (disposing of marine litter in energy from waste plants or landfills) practices for marine litter management.


It is recognised that Sea Litter Critters is not the solution to marine litter but it provides a practical choice for clean ups and upkeeping of cleaner shores in the short-medium term, and a quick, viable solution for emergency situations.

Finally, from a business perspective, IRIS sees Sea Litter Critters as the ideal application for its own patent pending waste treatment technology and a good business opportunity able to provide work to up to 17 new employees.


IRIS has concluded Phase 1 with an elaborated business plan that will be used as a basis for a Phase 2 application to be submitted 2017. Work on the development of the technology is continuing through self funding and local initiatives involving also local Universities.




* Adidas

* Algalita research foundation

* Aliance to end Plastic Waste AEPW

* Baltimore Mr Trash river cleaning barge

* BAN - Basel Convention Action Network

* Boyan Slat's ocean booms

* CLAIM H2020 EU marine plastic project

* Earth Day - Fact sheet ocean plastic

* Fionn Ferreira's ferrofluid extraction of microplastics

* FlashLight Press Michelle Lord & Julia Blatt

* Greenpeace

* GRIPS - Global Research & Innovation in Plastics Sustainability

* 5 Gyres Institute

* Interceptor tethered river cleaning barges

* Junk Raft - plastic awareness voyage

* Kids Against Plastic Tat KAPTAT

* Kulo Luna graphic novel

* Miss Ocean - Plastic Awareness Events

* 4Ocean recycled plastic bracelets

* Nike - Sneakers from recycled materials, ocean spills

* Ocean Voyages Institute

* Ocean Waste Plastic

* Parley AIR

* Plastic Free Eastbourne

* Plastic Oceans Canada

* Plastic Oceans Chile

* Plastic Oceans Mexico

* Plastic Oceans Org

* Plastic Oceans UK

* Recycling Technologies

* Rozalia Project

* Seabin

* Sea Litter Critters

* SeaVax autonomous drones

* Surfers Against Sewage

* Surrey University PIRATE & Triton

* Sussex Bay - Coastline marine rewilding project

* World Oceans Day

* WRAP - Waste & Resources Action Programme




Sea Litter Critter is not alone in the fight against ocean plastic. These emerging technologies could all play a part in containing the mountain of plastic that is accumulating on the oceans floors, by recovering floating debris before it sinks. New ideas are welcomed.







IRIS - A concept to take advantage of laser treatment of waste. Corso Unione Sovietica 612/21 - TORINO - Italy 
Offices and lab: Via Papa Giovanni Paolo Secondo 26 - Orbassano (TO) - Italy. P.I. 10777180018











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