An estimated 22 million pounds of plastic pollution enters the Great Lakes every year. Lately, human efforts to clean up waterfront plastic debris have gotten a boost from some robotic helpers.

In 2022, the Meijer Corporation donated $1 million to the Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR) Great Lakes Plastic Cleanup for public education and events to combat waterfront plastic pollution. CGLR and partners acquired and deployed stormwater gutter filtration bins and remote-controlled robots to collect plastic from beach sand and marina waters. Sets of BeBot and PixieDrone robots were earmarked for various communities in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The robots were obtained in mid-2022 and piloted at a Muskegon beach and marina that summer. Mark Breederland, Michigan Sea Grant Extension educator for the northwest Lower Peninsula, helped coordinate acquisition, training, storage, and public marina and beach demonstrations for sets of robots stationed in Traverse City and Muskegon. After a successful pilot season, the robots were ready to roam in waterfront communities around the Great Lakes region.

A wheelbarrow-sized rectangular drone cruises through the water next to a pier.
The PixieDrone collects debris floating on the surface of marina and harbor waters.
A young person pilots a golf cart-sized robot across a sandy beach.
The BeBot robot sifts through the top two inches of beach sand to collect debris for the project team to sort and catalog.


In 2023, the Michigan robots were deployed again to collect garbage and fuel public interest. The robots collected and project team members sorted, weighed, and itemized waste materials found in the top two inches of beach sand or floating on the surface of marina waters.

With Mark Breederland’s guidance and support from The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, a summer intern from the University of Michigan was hired to drive the BeBot and PixieDrone on beaches and in marinas around Traverse City. “The robots are people magnets,” said Mark. The eye-catching gadgets drew onlookers into conversations about plastic waste and microplastic contamination. Mark also joined the robots in several Meijer stores in October 2023 to educate and engage shoppers.

This project is an international and multi-state collaborative, involving coordination from Michigan Sea Grant, Ohio Sea Grant, University of Wisconsin Whitewater, Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute, and many other partners.