“I want to say one word to you. Just one word… Plastics.”
In 1967, when Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate received that vocational advice, ‘plastics’ was only a punchline — a clever symbol of society’s artificiality, or perhaps a one-word critique of capitalism. In the past 45 years, though, plastics — and their abnormal longevity — have become a very real concern for the fate of ourselves and other species on the planet.
Besides engorging landfills around the world, plastics have filled the oceans. Sometimes they arrive whole (think the connected rings of a six-pack holder), but more often are just stray, tiny bits — fractional pieces that connect with others to become giants patches.
Over time, these chunks have collected and congealed to become islands, and now, most ominously, continent-sized dumps of swirling garbage. Such floating monstrosities are called gyres, and scientists have identified five of them in the oceans of the world. The North Pacific Gyre is about twice the size of the continental United States!
The gyres pose a hazard to birds and fish that mistake them for food, and also are a vector for toxic chemicals, like PCBs and DDTs, to enter the food chain — eventually ending up on our dinner plates. Given that plastic doesn’t decompose like natural materials, these immense trash balls will easily outlast us — perhaps surviving for thousands of years.
How do we reverse the damage? Boyan Slat, a 19-year-old entrepreneur, thinks he may have a solution; he calls it the Ocean Cleanup Array. Essentially, he wants to harness the waves and the sun to power a flotilla of huge Roombas — manta ray-shaped platforms that would be tethered to the sea bed and sift plastics out of the water.
The system doesn’t use nets, and thus would avoid ensnaring large marine creatures. However, questions remain about the fate of plankton in the proposed extraction cycle. Slat theorizes that the entire initiative could eventually turn a profit, since the retreived plastic sludge could be sold to the recycling marketplace.
In the past few days — since Slat’s plan went viral on the internet — a few well-intentioned critiques have sprung up to discredit his idea point by point. But he’s the first to admit that many specifics are still being researched. Of the hype proclaiming his is a ‘feasible method’ of extracting plastic from the gyres, Slat says:
This is an incorrect statement; we are only at about 1/4th of completing our feasibility study. Only after finishing that study, we believe such statements should be made.
Although the preliminary results look promising, and our team of about 50 engineers, modellers, external experts and students is making good progress, we have no intention of presenting a concept as a feasible solution while still being in investigative phase.
It appears that Slat has a level head about the science that remains to be done; he himself didn’t make any unsubstantiated claims. I specifically chose the word ‘might’ in the title of this article (as opposed to ‘can’) in deference to the incomplete nature of his scientific analysis.
But please take the time to watch this young man’s TEDTalk from last year. It gives me hope to see such a bold combination of innovation and passion being channeled into a devastating problem that — for much too long — has been ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Let me know what you think in the Comments.