There’s a karmic related adage in more than one religion and/or philosophy that essentially states “everything you do will come back to you”, be that good or ill. This is no less true when it comes to our garbage. Our trash infects our soil, rivers, wells, air, and our oceans. While all of it is of concern, I’d like to focus on the oceans.
While there are millions of tons of garbage in the oceans, ninety-percent of it is plastic. The reasons plastic is so appealing to us are the very reasons it’s so dangerous in our oceans: It’s cheap and durable. So durable, in fact, that it takes 1000 years for it to degrade. Plastic goes through a process of photo-degrading, which means that it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces over time. So tiny, in fact, that most are not even visible to us. The oceans you see may look clean, but there are over 45,000 pieces of plastic per square mile in the ocean, most of which are invisible to us.
Some of you may have heard of the great ‘garbage patches’ in the oceans, or gyres. These words and phrases tend make people imagine a large area, by some estimates the size of Texas, of visible, floating, and rotting garbage. In reality, these patches are mostly comprised of the tiny pieces of invisible plastic mentioned previously. Not visible doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous though.
Hundreds of thousands of marine life are killed each year due to our garbage in the oceans. It’s eaten by birds who then later starve or dehydrate, it blocks the sunlight that algae and plankton need to survive, it entangles whales, sharks, turtles, dolphins and other marine life. Eventually we end up consuming our own garbage too by way of eating the fish that have eaten the plastic we’ve carelessly tossed into their habitat. The dangerous and even deadly effects of eating plastic or even eating warm food that has touched plastic has been well established. We’re not only killing the marine life in the oceans and destroying our gorgeous waters, we’re slowly poisoning ourselves as well.
Obviously, we need to stop the influx of garbage into our oceans by using plastic less, recycling, and reusing. But that’s only part of the problem. Given that the plastic in the oceans now will not degrade for centuries, we need to find a way to clean the waste that’s currently in the water. Cleaning up the garbage we can actually see is a huge undertaking in itself, but it’s only 10% of the problem. And given that most of the invisible plastics in the oceans are in international waters, it’s difficult to convince any one government to take responsibility and put forth the time, effort, research, and resources necessary to even touch this problem. That’s where the private sector comes in. Below are some potential solutions to a serious problem that we all need to work together to solve. All are very innovative, and some are more feasible than others. Maybe the answer is not just one of these solutions, but a couple or all of them. They may need funding and all need more research. I urge everyone to take a look at each of them, keep tabs on them, and support these kind of endeavors.
Ocean-sized Vacuum Cleaner
The general idea with this solution is to fix water processors to the seabed and let the natural currents flow the water through the booms. The booms would act like giant funnels with a force of water gentle enough for any sea creature to avoid. The plastic would then be filtered out of the water and kept for collection later. These processors would be powered entirely by the sun, wind, and currents
Plastic Eating Bacteria
A team of students at UC Davis are working to engineer a bacteria that could essentially eat plastic. That may be a very simplistic way of explaining it since I’m not going to pretend to understand the biochemistry of it all. But the general idea is to speed up the degradation of the plastic considerably by feeding it to certain microbial strains of E. coli.
Marine Drone Cleaner
You know those robot vacuum cleaners that roll around your house or in your pool to clean them? This is a really big version of those. Using sonar, a team of people on a ship will control an army of drones that catch plastic to later be recycled. With their rechargeable batteries, the drones can stay underwater for 2 weeks gobbling up garbage.
Free-floating Recycling Center
Also known as the Plastic Fish Tower, this floating recycling center and possible tourist attraction is envisioned to sit on the water’s surface collecting plastic and actually processing it on site. A large fence or net circles the plant and captures all plastic that floats into it where it is then taken to an onboard recycling center and assembled into fish farms.
These are but a few recent innovative ideas that caught my attention. There may well be others out there and I have no doubt that more will be coming. Keep an eye out and offer support in any way you can to the brilliant minds that may help to engineer a solution to a problem that most people have deemed impossible to solve.