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Currently showing: Climate/natural disasters > Pollution

12 Sep 13 20:07

My war on plastics began when I first heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Then I found out there are several of these gyres, and I realized that this was a cumulation of every plastic bottle and bag we each, as individuals, use and throw away. If anybody is still in any doubt as to what happens with all that waste, well, let's just say there aren't any garden gnomes who come out at night and clean up after us. A good portion of our garbage ends up in the oceans, contaminating the water, food chain and thereby, us. Read an earlier rant about why limiting the amount of (unnecessary) plastics is so so necessary, here

But while limiting future use is key (via education, packaging legislation..), what about all the plastic that is already there?

Until earlier this year, the consensus was that we could not clean it. Certainly not without investing millions of dollars with no return (other than the enormous benefit of trying to avoid some of the contamination to the food chain that ensues, that is). So we were stuck, powerlessly watching as these gyres grew day by day.

Enter innovation and Gen Y awesomeness: Earlier this year a 19-year-old inventor called Boyan Slat came up with a way to remove nearly 20 billion tons of plastic waste using what he calls the ocean cleanup array. It is made from a massive series of floating booms and processing platforms that gradually suck in the floating plastic like a giant funnel. Better still, it is powered by solar energy and ocean currents themselves, letting them bring the garbage to it rather than trawling for it. And amazingly, he says he could do so in just 5 years time! But the best bit? He claims it would be profitable! According to Boyan, all the recycling, estimated at USD 500 million per year, is more than it would cost to develop the technology and execute the plan.

Ummm, where do I sign? Oh and if venture capital isn't pouring in, let's fund it with our own money. I'm in!

Check this amazing kid out in the TED Talk he gave in Delft earlier this year:

Category: Climate/natural disasters: Pollution, Sustainable energy: Solar, Other


Richard Montgomery - 13 Sep 2013, 2:48 p.m.

Stunning idea. A creative solution to cleaning up the gyres warrants some heavy duty investment. It would be interesting to see how much it would cost to develop and maintain the 24 vessels that he proposes. I would expect that a deep clean of the five main gyres would have huge long term benefits for humanity. No doubt thereafter further clean-ups could be scheduled every five or ten years so as to remove build-up of pollution in the meantime - judicious reuse of the vessels would then ensure lower cost repeat cleans, presumably offset by reducing value of recyclable material.

This project seems to carry the potential for wide-spread on-line fund raising. It would be helpful if half-a-dozen big corporates could stick in US$20m to US$50m each and ensure that there are proper audit trails and project management in place. Then all we need is 10m people to invest US$20 to US$50 each and the project is up and running.

The gyres were mentioned on QI a few seasons back. Maybe we could persuade the honorable Fry to punt the project?

Alicia Montoya - 16 Sep 2013, 3:42 p.m.

Great idea, Richard. Just tweeted to him ;)

Daniel Martin Eckhart - 6 Oct 2013, 12:51 p.m.

When coming across Boyan Slat last month, I was instantly taken by the powerful idea. And I thought, since Swiss Re's involved in the Solar Impulse venture - wouldn't it be at least equally powerful to support this inventor's project?

I remembered that our very own Jayne Plunkett was, as part of the Young Global Leaders", involved in an ocean project. So I pitched the wiz kid's plans to her last month - and she said she'd get in touch with a friend at National Geographics to get more insights. She seemed interested. Here's hoping!

Alicia Montoya - 10 Nov 2013, 11:47 a.m.

Yep, Jayne Plunkett serves on the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council for Oceans.

I think she was referring to Enric Sala, with whom she made this video at WEF 2013 where they advocate for ocean resilience and the creation of fish banks

Sauro Selleri - 20 Mar 2014, 4:36 p.m.

Great post Alicia thank you!
I hope the cleaning project is viable and will find enough resources to make it real!
In parallel, we must start a serious program to reduce the production (and the consumption, of course) of non-degradable elements. There are many bio-polymeric plastic out there (with lifetime of few months), what are we waiting for?

Jennifer Rodney - 20 Mar 2014, 4:53 p.m.

When I was in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, I picked up an iced coffee at a local chain. The disposable cups they used were made of a plant-based biodegradable plastic. All I could think as I enjoyed my beverage at the time was: Why on Earth aren't these cups EVERYWHERE already?? And I'm still waiting for them to show up in the US and Switzerland. I wonder if there's anything Swiss Re could do in the role of a best practice advisor to further this and similar causes within our sphere of influence? In the mean time, thanks for reminding me about bio-polymeric plastic Sauro - as a consumer I can start asking my local coffee shops about it!

Sauro Selleri - 21 Mar 2014, 8:04 a.m.

Jennifer, you're welcome. Actually I gotta know this 'cause a friend of mine has done a PhD about this plastics and we have talked a lot about this. Since 2011, Italy has banned all oil-based plastic bags and all the shops bags must be made of such biodegradable material or paper. One of the trigger that helped such little revolution was the amount of turtles and whales found dead in the italian beaches in past years - mainly due to plastic bags ingestion. At least they did not die in vane.

Jennifer Rodney - 28 Mar 2014, 10:56 a.m.

Thanks for sharing Sauro. What is your friend's PhD about?

That's very encouraging to hear that Italy made a real change in response to environmental impact/losses. It's surely a great first step.

But I'd be curious to know the full impact of switching to biodegradable shopping bags - what I struggle with is the complexity of these issues and how seemingly positive changes can have unintended consequences. Hopefully that's not the case for Italy's plastic bag project. Have they logged any positive changes since initiating the project?

Thanks also for sharing the Midway Island trailer. I've seen it a couple of times and I think it's got a very powerful message.

I fell in love with albatrosses, frigates and other sea birds when traveling in South America. I was lucky enough to get to Galapagos, which was striking for its (relatively) pristine environments. Learning about the ecosystem's fragility has definitely stuck with me as a reminder to make more conscious decisions as a consumer. I don't think any of us - individuals, governments, businesses - can be perfect when it comes to environmental impact, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to do better.

Alicia Montoya - 28 Mar 2014, 2:51 p.m.

On that note about unintended consequences... Look what happened in Rwanda when they banned non-biodegradable plastic

Alicia Montoya - 12 Aug 2014, 10:18 p.m.

Interesting update: Boyan's ocean cleanup project has been challenged by a number of experts. Boyan has recently addressed many of peer concerns in a feasibility study released on June 3, 2014.

Read a critical evaluation of the feasibility study by Dr. Kim Martini, a physical oceanographer who has been involved in the deployment of a variety of deep sea oceanographic moorings, and Dr. Miriam Goldstein, a biological oceanographer who has studied the ecological impacts of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre:

In a nutshell: They believe the feasibility study still has major technical issues that must be addressed before such a large-scale project is truly functional.

I hope more scientists also engage and critically appraise the project so it can evolve into a feasible project.

Gillian Rutherford - 1 Jun 2015, 3:15 p.m.

Alicia Montoya - 1 Jun 2015, 10:46 p.m.

Hooorayyyyy!! I love that scientists the world over have helped debug / perfect the system. Yes, we can, world! :) Thanks for the great news

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