Hopeful Ocean Plastic Solutions

Picture credit: The Ocean Cleanup 

In 2015, I was cast in two roles – as a jellyfish, and as a piece of personified plastic – in Noble Material: A Plastic Musical, about disposed plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; jellyfish and disintegrating plastics appear remarkably similar to turtles, for whom jellyfish are a food source. The premise of the play was that this material was invented with noble intent but one which went quickly out of control. It is also an allegorical tale about the potential future of plastic on Earth. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 and the United Nations Environment Program states that so-called biodegradable plastics don’t actually degrade rapidly in an oceanic environment.

“Shame on you for your lack of vision

All of you there making terrible decisions

If you want to use something, then throw it away

Use something that breaks down in hours or days.

Not me, no way! I’m way too strong

1000 years and I’ll carry on!

I’m sick of you and your single use

Your discriminatory resource abuse.” 

(From the song “One Time”, in Noble Material: A Plastic Musical)

In 2013, I was part of a team inventing and prototyping an Ocean Plastic Optical Sensor to quantify ocean plastic. The same year, Boyton Slat, then 18, launched his inspiring dream, The Ocean Cleanup, to passively collect plastic using ocean currents and recycle the ocean water. This month, I’ve been watching in awe as Slat’s team of innovative engineers set out on their mission to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, knowing exactly how daunting this task is: research by Slat’s Ocean Cleanup team discovered that 92% of the 79,000 metric tons of plastic in the 1.6 million km2 patch is abandoned fishing gear, with nets accounting for 46% of this. Microplastics make up the remaining 8 percent of the total plastic tonnage in the gyre, and 94% of the trillions of pieces floating in the area. 

“To catch the plastic, we need to act like plastic. We will use the ocean’s currents to carry our approximately 60, 1-2km systems throughout the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, moving in the same manner and patterns that the plastic follows in the accumulation zone, although slightly faster. The difference in speed is what makes concentrating the plastic possible. The systems will move faster than the plastic, due to the influence of wind and waves on the system; these forces do not affect the plastic as much as the system, because the plastic floats primarily just below the surface. Thanks to the systems’ faster pace, the cleanup system will be able to catch up with the plastic, like a Pac-Man, and concentrate it in its U-shape. A support vessel will empty the systems every 6-8 weeks.”

(The Ocean Cleanup)

Knowing the scope of the problem and doing our best effort to clear it up must go hand in hand with weaning ourselves completely from unnecessary plastic use, and finding trulybiodegradable alternatives where we can’t; for example, bioplastic fishing materials, and seaweed-based edible water droplets, such as Ooho, for countries where access to clean water is limited. The seafood industry’s environmental impact should be better regulated and labels added to food caught without plastic waste, just as we have “dolphin friendly” labels on tuna cans to inform responsible consumerism. We also need a Hippocratic oath for scientists and inventors: to do no harm and to think through the potential future outcomes. From there, we have unlimited inspiration in Nature to heal our planet.

“I use the power of my mind to transcend space, to conquer time.

I use the wisdom of my elders and the ones who came before me

Like a river to the sea, I will set the water free

And project ideas forward. What will future people need?

I’m a creator, a kind of innovator.

I copy nature, use my art to give it flavour.” 

(From the song “Something out of Nothing”, in Noble Material: A Plastic Musical)