Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is There a Solution to the "Continent of Plastic" that Pollutes the Pacific?

The UN Environment Program estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter in every square mile of ocean, and a swirling vortex of trash twice the size of Texas has spawned in the North Pacific.

Are there really 'continents', or massive floating garbage patches residing in the Pacific? Apparently, the rumors are true, and these unsightly patches are reportedly killing marine life and releasing poisons that enter the human food chain, as well. However, before you start imagining a plastic version of Maui, keep in mind that these plastic patches certainly aren't solid surfaced islands that you could build a house on! Ocean currents have collected massive amounts of garbage into a sort of plastic "soup" where countless bits of discarded plastic float intertwined just beneath the surface. Indeed, the human race has really made its mark. The enormous Texas-sized plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons.

Sadly, marine researcher Charles Moore at the Algalita Marina Research Foundation in Long Beach says there’s no practical fix for the problem. He has been studying the massive patch for the past 10 years, and said the debris is to the point where it would be nearly impossible to extract.

"Any attempt to remove that much plastic from the oceans - it boggles the mind," Moore said from Hawaii, where his crew is docked. "There's just too much, and the ocean is just too big."

The trash collects in this remote area, known as the North Pacific Gyre, due to a clockwise trade wind that encircles the Pacific Rim. According to Moore the trash accumulates the same way bubbles clump at the center of hot tub.
Since they asked whether there is a solution, I felt the need to try and solve the problem. My solution? A bunch of autonomous robots scurrying the North Pacific Gyre, scooping up and burning the plastic. I call them Whoombas as they would be a cross between a Roomba and a whale.

The Whoomba would be similar to other aquatic autonomous robots that can travel around without any need for human interaction. The Whoomba would resemble a humpback whale with a mouth in front which would open up to collect the plastic and other trash. When it collected enough trash, the mouth would then close and all the water would be drained. Then it would incinerate the plastic generating steam to drive a turbine. This would generate electricity that would recharge its battery. Using the plastic for energy would allow it to keep moving around and collecting more plastic without needing to refuel. Just like whales feed on plankton, Whoombas would feed on plastic.

I don't know how large the optimal size would be for these Whoombas, but I am thinking something the size of yacht. That would allow its mouth to be big enough to capture the trash, and give you enough space to put in a small incinerator and turbine. Get a couple thousand of these out there and the plastic would be eaten up in no time.

via The Daily Galaxy

Update: Apparently there is a human operated boat called the TrashCat that does something similar to the Whoomba. If you want to see what this problem looks like with your own eyes, check out the Garbage Island videos produced by More information on this issue can be found in the NY Times Magazine's Sea of Trash article. If you are curious about how the levels of plankton and plastic compare, you can't do much better than this: A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific central gyre. And in the BBC's excellent Blue Planet series (I was able to pick up a copy of Planet Earth/The Blue Planet on eBay for $39 shipped, one steal of a deal if you ask me), they note that the larger pieces of garbage can be used as shelter for small fish, so maybe some of this trash does sea life more good than harm.


Rebelfish said...

I like the giant robot (and especially the name) but it would also eat up and turn into propulsion plankton and fishes and the like if it ran into any schools. Then again, the middle of the ocean isn't known for its biodiversity.

Fat Knowledge said...


Good point. This article suggests that there is more trash than plankton in this part of the ocean.

JeremyGood said...

I thought I left a comment on here about plastic-eating micro-organisms, but it's gone now. Did you delete it? If not, let me know and I will post it again. If so, let me know why you deleted it so in the future I can avoid whatever I did wrong

Fat Knowledge said...


No, I didn't delete it. Would like to hear about the plastic eating micro-organisms though.

For some reason I also did not get an email when you left a comment on the "Las Vegas to Build World’s First 30 Story Vertical Farm" post, so maybe there is something wrong with Blogger.

Jeremy Goodell said...

Ok, I'll try again. A 17 year old student won the Canadian national science fair by isolating two micro-organisms that broke down 43 percent of a plastic bag in just a few weeks. See the blurb, along with a link to the full story: Canadian Student Isolates Plastic=Eating Micro=Organisms

Fat Knowledge said...

I like that idea Jeremy. Petroleum was made by nature, so why shouldn't we have natural organisms that can break down petroleum products like plastic?

Of course if we did get lots of plastic eating microbes out on the open seas, I guess you would need to think twice about having a plastic hulled ship, huh?

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