Saving the World: Business Ideas for Cleaning the Ocean from Plastic Waste
Plastic pollution is a problem that plagues not one, but all of the world’s oceans, killing sea life and endangering the health of human beings. Though the issue of marine plastic solution is not one that can be resolved easily, it is possible to alleviate the problem at least to a small extent. By coming up with a business plan that helps to get rid of and/or reuse ocean plastic, you can show your concern for the environment.
Aspects discussed in this article are 1) plastic waste in the oceans is a very serious issue, 2) challenges associated with ridding the ocean of plastic, and 3) innovative business ideas for removing and/or reusing plastic waste from oceans.
PLASTIC WASTE IN THE OCEANS IS A VERY SERIOUS ISSUE
The issue with the plastic waste in the oceans is more serious for the whole Earth than you may have imagined. The following facts prove it.
If we were to consider Los Angeles alone, ten metric tons of plastic fragments such as grocery bags, soda bottles, and straws, enter the Pacific Ocean daily.
The world’s largest ocean garbage site is called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is situated in the North Pacific Gyre off the California Coast. This floating load of plastic is twice the size of Texas, with the ratio of plastic fragments to sea life being six to one.
Degradation of plastic can take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years. As per 2006 EPA statistics, close to half (46 percent) of plastics float and may drift for years before finally concentrating in the ocean gyres.
Plastic that finds its way in the ocean breaks down into such minute pieces that segments from a one liter plastic bottle could end up on every mile of beach all over the world. In samples taken from the Lake Erie, 85 percent of the plastic bits were smaller than two-tenths of an inch, mostly microscopic.
All sea turtle species, 44 percent of all seabird species, more than 20 percent of cetaceans, and the growing list of fish arts have been documented to have plastic either inside or around their bodies. One million sea birds and a hundred thousand marine mammals die every year because of plastic in the ocean.
Plastic does not biodegrade. The sun’s UV rays combined with salt from the sea water result in conventional plastic becoming brittle and breaking apart into tiny bits of plastic, still holding toxic substances that came in during manufacture such as Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and flame retardants. What’s more, plastics are like a magnet for persistent oily pollutants in the sea water and which the former concentrates. So, these plastic fragments not only imperil sea creatures by way of entanglement or blocking their digestive tracts, but also by causing the entry of hazardous chemicals into the food chain.
A very high number of Americans (93 percent) aged six years and older test positive for Bisphenol A. BPA-free is not safer.
CHALLENGES ASSOCIATED WITH RIDDING THE OCEAN OF PLASTIC
With any offshore cleanup plan come various challenges.
- The challenge of locating the debris: Gyres are huge systems of rotating ocean currents (the size of continents), especially those associated with huge wind movements. What’s more, they are loosely defined. Even in the heart of the gyre where debris buildup peaks, the effect can be likened to a plastic soup with pieces distributed all through the extent of the water column to a depth of approximately 20 meters. In addition, plastics are not restricted to gyres but accumulate throughout marine environments as varied as the Arctic seafloor and shoreline mangroves.
- Challenge of selectively pulling out the plastics: The plastics would become microscopic in size with the passage of time. In addition, they have to be extracted without harming sea life. What to do if sea creatures have already colonized the plastics?
- Challenge of corrosive forces: Any device employed in the sea would have to compete against the extremely corrosive forces created by violent storms, constant motion and amassing of barnacles and bird droppings.
- Challenge of financing: Where to get money to carry out the cleanup?
- Challenge of what to do once extracted: Getting the plastics out of the oceans is difficult enough. However, one must also figure out what to do with the extracted plastics.
INNOVATIVE BUSINESS IDEAS FOR REMOVING AND/OR REUSING PLASTIC WASTE FROM OCEANS
Bioplastics – One Sustainable but Much Debated Alternative
Bioplastics are plastics obtained from renewable biomass sources such as corn starch, vegetable oils and fats, microbiota or pea starch. They can be produced from agricultural byproducts and even from used plastic bottles and other containers utilizing microorganisms. On the other hand, typical plastics such as fossil-fuel plastics are obtained from petroleum and their production calls for more fossil fuels and generates more greenhouse gas.
Bioplastics are utilized for disposable goods such as crockery, packaging, pots, cutlery, straws and bowls. They are also frequently utilized for trays, bags, blister foils, fruit and vegetable containers, meat packaging, egg cartons, dairy products, bottling for soft drinks, and vegetables.
Bioplastics are also utilized in non-disposable applications such as carpet fibers, plastic piping, and mobile casings. New electroactive bioplastics are being created that can be used to convey electrical current. With respect to these applications, the objective is not biodegradability but development of items from sustainable resources.
Though bioplastics are a greener alternative, they bring problems of their own:
Disposal of Bioplastics
Even biodegradable and compostable plastics usually only break down properly when conditions are favorable for them. In the water or land, these plastics usually remain long enough to result in potential hazards to water life and systems.
Manufacture of Bioplastics
Corn-based bioplastics depend on the production of corn, which brings up concerns pertaining to agricultural consequences on food production, land use, and global warming. Fortunately, these impacts can be considerably decreased by specifying bioplastic products developed from waste-based agricultural residues (residues that remain following harvest from an existing agricultural land use which would be considered as waste otherwise).
TCOP (The Clean Oceans Project)
TCOP (The Clean Ocean Project) is a non-profit based in Santa Cruz and planning to construct a 65-foot manned sailing catamaran intended to skim four common kinds of plastics that float – #2HDPE, #4LDPE, #6PS and #5PP from the sea’s surface. Polymers such as #3PVC and nylon are not targeted. Fortunately, 80 percent of aquatic plastic pollution comes from land-based sources and chiefly from single-use products created from the targeted polymers. In addition, gyre currents advantageously sweep floating fragments into streams known as “windrows” that can be seen by the naked eye.
The plan is to only target fragments that can be collected by a ¼ inch mesh. The reason is that getting rid of the bigger stuff should result in diminishing of microplastics over the passage of time. A hand-held spectrophotometer would assist with sorting plastics by polymer.
The game changer for the non-profit was discovering Blest, a Japanese company that already has a plastics-to-light crude oil converter on the market. This converter can produce a gallon of fuel from eight pounds of plastic waste with no toxic air emissions because the plastics are only heated for distillation into fuels, and not incinerated. The only resulting emissions are water vapor and carbon dioxide.
TCOP expects to develop the first-ever shipboard converter to produce enough fuel to supplement the solar sail and wind technology which would power the catamaran. The expensive transfer of captured plastics to landfills or recyclers (situated chiefly in China) would be done away with it. The converter is priced at $199,000 and made to handle 500 pounds of plastic a day. As of June 2014, the non-profit was looking for funding to arrange a test run in the North Pacific Gyre. The endeavor may not be profitable, considering the considerable support it is getting from philanthropic and corporate organizations, though it is worthwhile for the sake of the environment.
Plastic-eating marine drone
In 2012, an industrial design student by the name of Elie Ahovi introduced the concept of an autonomous underwater drone that could find and destroy plastic. The electric underwater vehicle called the “Marine Drone” which tows a plastic trapping net, can siphon plastic garbage, ingesting bits of trash in a wide open maw equivalent to that of a whale shark. A circular buoy surrounds the net to balance the weight of the trash it collects. The drone prevents fish and other marine creatures from getting inside its jaws by spreading an annoying for fishes sonic transmitter. The vehicle communicates with its base station and other drones using sonar.
The system may be able to stay underwater for two weeks, swallowing tiny plastic shards or whole plastic bottles. With the draining of its batteries, it can go back to an ocean base, and human crews would tow it up and take out the plastic for recycling. This concept is a response to a challenge from Veolia, a France-based environmental services firm that asked students to propose ideas to deal with the problem of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
In addition to cleaning the oceans, the vehicle could bring in returns for companies looking to recycle plastics and decrease petroleum use.
Ocean Cleanup Array
Last year, a 19-year-old Dutch boy by the name of Boyan Slat uncovered plans to develop an Ocean Cleanup Array that could get rid of 7,25,000 tons of plastic trash from the world’s oceans. The machine comprises an anchored network. It consists of floating booms and processing platforms that could be sent to garbage patches in different parts of the globe. Rather than travel through the ocean, the array would function as a huge funnel, covering the radius of a garbage patch. The angle of the booms would push plastic in the path of the platforms where it would be detached from plankton, filtered, and kept for recycling.
At school, the teenager started a project that assessed the amount and size of plastic particles in the ocean’s patches of garbage. His final paper won a number of prizes including Best Technical Design 2012 at the Delft University of Technology. Boyan carried on with developing his concept in the summer of 2012 and he shared it some months later at TEDxDelft2012.
Boyan later started a non-profit organization called The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which is in charge of the development of his intended technologies. His brilliant solution has the potential to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of aquatic animals each year and decrease the buildup of pollutants (such as DDT and PPT) in the food chain. It may also save millions annually with respect to clean-up expenses, damage to marine vessels and lost tourism.
Though Boyan’s plan met with a lot of criticism, one year and a 530-page report later, independent experts have come to the conclusion the array is a practical ocean cleanup method. A crowd funding campaign that followed was able to raise nearly $2.2 million which means the organization can now begin the pilot phase of the project.
Bionic Yarn for Jeans and Shirts
In February, 2014, popular musician, designer and style maverick Pharrell Williams announced a joint project with his eco-minded company called Bionic Yarn. The target of the project is to ensure that sustainable fashion and conservation of the earth is accessible to everyone through the garments they purchase. It was to involve converting plastic from the ocean into yarn that denim label G-Star RAW would then utilize to create a collection of men’s and women’s jeans called RAW for the Ocean. Plastic bottles gathered from beaches and oceans are broken into tiny flakes, melted and passed through a shower head to create the highly durable fibers following which G-Star RAW works their magic on them. A detailed explanation of the production process is available on the brand’s website – https://www.g-star.com. The RAW for the Ocean collection is currently available for purchase, also by way of the same website.
In the latter half of 2011, Method announced an ambitious project to convert plastic waste from the ocean into detergent bottles. The ‘Ocean Plastic’ bottles are partly developed from debris that has made its way to Hawaiian beaches, thus ensuring that more plastics do not end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The project is meant to increase awareness about ocean plastic trash and what can be done about the problem.
The style of the Method bottle is a departure from the company’s usual bright colors. The company’s intention in doing so was to retain the plastic in its natural form. The gray color results from chopping and blending that takes place at the time of recycling. The sea urchin is the inspiration for the bottles’ ridged design. Method bottles designed for hand & dish soap (2-in-1) can be bought using the company’s website and at Whole Foods Market stores.
Though Method’s idea was great, for some time, there was no real and lasting source for the ocean plastic until an apparel company called United by Blue contacted them. The latter takes out one pound of ocean trash for each product sold. United by Blue’s ocean conservation model is unique. Instead of entrusting other organizations to carry out its charitable works and paying them for it, the company arranges its own ocean cleanups, making certain that it can achieve real results. As of December 2011, the company had removed 82,000 pounds of ocean waste. Method takes the plastics collected by United By Blue, hands it over to the plastic recycler Envision Plastics, and gets back recycled suitable material for detergent bottles. Though United by Blue could not give Method as much ocean plastic as it required, it did have a considerable amount to give.
Plastic Bank and First Ever 3D Printed Item
As of June 2014, The Plastic Bank had developed an item solely with 3D printing filament created from recycled ocean plastic. The project is another step forward in the organization’s movement to convert plastic waste from the ocean into 3D printing filament which in turn can better the lives of a section of the world’s poor. Thus, the organization is converting ocean plastic trash into a currency to assist with decreasing plastic waste as well as international poverty. It is setting up exchange/re-purposing centers for plastic trash in areas with a heavy concentration of plastic pollution and poverty.
The project started with a shoreline cleanup in Alaska, with waste plastic collected from the ocean. Following sorting, the plastic was sent to UBC and concerted into 3D filament that the Plastic Bank headquarters in Vancouver utilized to print the first ever 3D item.
Bureo brand skateboards
The decks of Bureo brand skateboards are created from plastic fishing nets that have been thrown off the Chilean coast. The credit for developing the skateboards goes to a trio of skaters and surfers from the northeast. This is no doubt a great step to get rid of plastic waste in the oceans considering that discarded plastic fishing nets are responsible for 10 percent of ocean plastic pollution across the globe. In addition, Bureo pays local fishing communities to gather the discarded nets, thereby providing a source of employment and economic activity.
According to Bureo’s co-founder, for every board, they are able to keep over 30 square feet of dangerous plastic fishnet trash out of the oceans, and give support to coastal communities while trying to change the younger generation’s way of looking at ocean plastic pollution and possibly inspire them to devise their own method(s) of positively contributing to the world.
As of July 2014, Bureo raised more than twice their goal by way of Kickstarter to start shipping boards developed from reclaimed ocean plastic all over the world.
Ocean waste is an international problem that calls for an international solution. Ingenious ideas, collaborative efforts and a sense of responsibility towards the environment can go a long way in resolving and curbing the problem.
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