The beaches of the Great Lakes are beautiful. That is, when they’re not covered in trash. This is a big problem and requires solutions of various kinds. At least in the near term, the region is getting some help from an unlikely partnership, and a pair of cute, trash-loving robots.
Midwest retailer Meijer, a supercenter chain that sells everything from groceries to electronics, is giving back and trying a novel kind of remediation to the trash problem in and along the Great Lakes. As part of the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup Program, the brand is driving the largest deployment of robotics technologies in what constitutes the largest surface freshwater system in the world.
The technology in question is the BeBot and Pixie drones.
“It is a privilege to live near the Great Lakes, which inherently comes with the responsibility to protect them,” says Meijer President & CEO Rick Keyes. “Contributing to the conservation of these invaluable waterways is important to the wellbeing of our ecosystems, economy, and the communities we serve. Meijer has a strong history of environmental stewardship, and we’re pleased to partner with the CGLR because the impact these initiatives will make will ultimately benefit generations to come.”
The BeBot and Pixie drones were funded by a $1 million donation Meijer made to the charitable arm of the Council of the Great Lakes Region Foundation (CGLR) earlier this year. The deployment of these devices is part of the expansion of the Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup’s plastic capture and recovery effort, an initiative that started in 2020 by the CGLR and Pollution Probe.
“Microplastics have become one of the most pressing issues facing our waterways, both in the Great Lakes and on a global scale; we are both excited and honored to be part of Meijer’s initiative to fund new technologies to address this problem,” says Dr. Al Steinman, the Allen and Helen Hunting Research Professor at the Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute. “It is critical to resolving the microplastic dilemma, not only for the ecology of our local waters but also for the economy of our coastal communities, who visit and recreate on our beaches and lakes with the expectation they are clean and pollutant-free. The BeBot and Pixie Drone will help ensure those expectations are met.”
The robots — technically drones because they are remote-controlled — are solar and battery-powered. They tackle trash pollution from both the land and water. BeBot, the land-based system, cleans 32,000 square feet per hour. The system sifts the sand and collects plastic litter, food wrappers, and cigarette butts. Critically, the drone doesn’t alter the environment or disturb native plants or species.
Pixie Drone takes to the water to collect up to 200 pounds of waste debris floating on the surface of the water. It doubles as a data collection platform, taking temperature, pH, salinity, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen readings.
“The Great Lakes, which are at the heart of the bi-national Great Lakes economic region, are a globally significant natural resource,” explains Mark Fisher, the President and CEO of CGLR. “By partnering with companies like Meijer, which shares CGLR’s strong commitment to building the region’s future sustainability and economy today, we are able to keep our beaches and waterways clean and free of plastic litter as we work to ensure the materials we use as consumers never become waste by adopting a circular economy mindset in the region.”
This is a nice story about a retailer — by its nature, an entity involved in the consumer cycle that produces so much trash — investing in remediation efforts. Meijer is also working on numerous store-level projects that impact the Great Lakes, including one with the CGLR to install gutter bin stormwater filtration systems at select Meijer locations.