Seabin working to collect trash on the Schuykill River
Seabin, an aquatic litter collector, at work at the community dock at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

New tool comes to the Delaware watershed to analyze plastics pollution
A pilot program introduces a device called Seabin

| June 9, 2022

In the fight against plastics in waterways comes a garbage collector that takes no lunch or coffee breaks – no breaks, at all, in fact.

Part pool skimmer, part pump and part trash can, the collector is a device called Seabin that runs on electricity (or solar power) and can be plopped into waterways, particularly around marinas and docks. 

It works by sucking water into a mesh filter, pumping the water through the bottom and capturing trash and plastics. The mesh is periodically emptied and the process then continues anew, around the clock.

In the Delaware River watershed, the device is being put to use in the Schuylkill River at Bartram’s Garden and at three locations at Pier 3 marina on the Delaware in Philadelphia.

Seabin backers say they’re not naïve enough to think that the devices will be an all-purpose solution to cleaning up all plastics in the Delaware watershed. Rather, they say, the devices will provide critical data about the types and volume of trash collected and where it appears in relation to storms and flooding. That, in turn, officials hope, will lead to insights about reducing the flow of plastics into the water in the first place.

In a month’s time, the three Seabins at Pier 3 have captured more than 890 pounds of material, including:

  • 179 tobacco products, such as packaging
  • 22 hygiene products, such as condoms
  • 7 balloon products
  • 1 prescription product, such as bottles or blister packs.

Of the 66,238 individual plastic items captured in that time, the overwhelming majority were microplastics, which are less than five millimeters in length, or about the size of a sesame seed, according to the National Ocean Service

“The data is what we anticipate will make the difference,” said Pete Ceglinski, chief executive officer of the Seabin Project.

The Seabin before it was put to work at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. An individual device can collect more than a ton of marine debris per year. PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE

Researchers have increasingly found microplastics in marine life and drinking water, the result of larger pieces of plastic disintegrating into tiny particles. While the risks to humans remains unclear, the microplastic particles have been known to cause damage to fish and other animals.

Ceglinski, who is a co-founder of the Seabin Project, hails from Byron Bay, Australia. An avid surfer and beach lover, he said he was unaware of the pervasiveness of plastics pollution until he traveled to other countries. What he saw was eye-opening, and prompted him to pursue the concept of Seabin. A former product designer who worked on telephones, medical equipment and toys, Ceglinski applied his design know-how and married it with his interests in cleaning up oceans.


“The problem is we know what it is — plastics in the water. But then what do you do about it?” he said. 

Pete Ceglinski, the CEO of the Seabin Project. PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE

The company started with a crowdfunding campaign in 2016 that raised a little more than $275,000 with a premise that Ceglinski described as, “If you have rubbish cans, why not put them in the water?”

The company, now with a team of 14, has since deployed hundreds of Seabins in dozens of countries. The company’s early business model – of selling the devices one at a time — was not sustainable, Ceglinski noted. The company was selling to “early adopters,” such as marinas and yacht clubs, but that approach ultimately made no sense because the devices, which each cost about $6,500 Australian dollars (roughly $4,600 U.S.), are constructed to last 10 to 20 years, he said. A few years ago, the company transitioned from sales to corporate sponsorships from companies like the Discovery Channel, whose logos appear on the devices. 

In the Delaware River watershed, the Seabin initiative grew out of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 3 office and its Trash Free Waters initiative and a collaboration between the Seabin Project and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary

The PDE and the Seabin Project, with $25,000 in funding and technical support from the EPA, will deploy the trash collectors in the Delaware watershed to test how well they monitor and remove trash in urban, high-energy, working rivers. 

On a dock along the Schuylkill River at Bartram’s Garden on Tuesday, officials gathered for a demonstration of the latest 6.0 model of the Seabin, the first of its kind to be put into service in North America.

“I think we are all aware that there is way too much trash in our waterways,” Kathy Klein, executive director of the PDE, said at the gathering. She cited a statistic that humans each ingest the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastic each week, which is to say nothing of what effects plastic pollution has on wildlife.

As the squealing of metal from a passing train echoed across the river — a reminder of the industrial and commercial uses that dot the watershed — the executive director of Bartram’s Garden, Maitreyi Roy, called the device “a wonderful first for the garden.”

And Adam Ortiz, administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Mid-Atlantic Region, said, “The government did not invent this ingenious device, but we partnered with a company that did.”

The devices will be in place in the watershed through October. At the demonstration on Tuesday, officials dumped on a table the contents of a Seabin that had been placed into service for about 15 minutes, revealing an assortment of twigs, plastic water bottles and foam cups.

The contents of a Seabin that had been put into service for about 15 minutes. PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE

Ceglinski said company officials were “geeking out” in working with IBM to develop artificial intelligence to analyze collected litter data, which they hope will help forecast where the plastics might show up in the future. Noting that an individual Seabin is capable of collecting as much as 1.5 tons of marine debris per year, Ceglinski said, “When you try to visualize this, the volume is insane.” 

Chris Mele

Chris Mele

Chris Mele is a reporter and editor with more than 30 years of experience in news, specializing in investigative and enterprise reporting.

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