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Our plastic ocean: World’s longest floating structure offers a solution

The world’s longest floating structure is set to be deployed in 2016 with its inventor estimating it could have the world’s oceans spick-and-span in just five years.

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At a span of 2000 metres, Boyan’s brainchild is the longest floating structure ever deployed in the ocean.

The inventor is 20 year-old Boyan Slat, founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, a highly innovative organisation with a rather self-explanatory name.

cubic-metre-diagramThe technology is expected to be deployed in Q2-2016 off the coast of Tsushima, an island between Japan and South Korea with such a prominent plastic problem that an estimated one cubic meter of pollution per person is washed up each year.

The device will float about for at least two years being a good citizen and catching plastic pollution before arriving on the shores of Tsushima Island. Given their current predicament, one might envision the poor residents of Tsushima Island greeting the approaching haul of plastic by throwing their hands up in exasperation, exclaiming ‘Just what we need! More bloody plastic! What did you bring that here for??!’. But in fact, they’re taking a much more positive approach and are busying themselves in a scientific lab investigating whether the resultant plastic can be used as an alternative energy source. Because logic.

The scale of the plastic problem

When we see images of plastic bags, bottles and rubbish floating listlessly through our oceans, it’s easy (and tempting) to grab the pitchforks and form a hippie lynch mob (an oxymoron if ever I saw one). However, some would argue that plastic is not the enemy; Appropriate disposal is.

Plastics can actually reduce our carbon footprint. They provide improved insulation, lighter packaging and are recyclable. However, when not disposed of correctly they are a poisonous, non-degradable, never-ending blight on the earth.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.

This plastic material and other floating waste tends to become concentrated in certain areas thanks to oceanic currents, creating gyres or ‘garbage patches’. There are an estimated five gyres in our ocean, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which occupies an area twice the size of Texas.

Will this floating thingo work? 

Slat’s invention consists of an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms. Using these booms rather than nets, the design works with nature and allows the ocean to move through it; eliminating the issue of by-catches (the death of wildlife) and allowing sea creatures to swim under the booms unaffected.

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This clean-up concept is definitely a worthwhile one. Nothing that improves the quality of our oceans while leaving behind no pollution, debris or other evidence of its existence behind can be a bad idea. Sadly though, this device does fall short of a miracle cure for our plastic ocean.

Gyres or ‘garbage patches’, for example, are not great big floating mountains made of fully-intact plastic debris just clinging together and quietly waiting to be collected. Unfortunately, much of the debris in these areas consists of microplastics (degraded from larger plastic items) suspended throughout the water. These tiny pieces of plastic permeate the water at every level, rather than floating innocently on top like a pool cover.

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Captain Moore, posing with a water sample taken from the Great Garbage Patch. Source: Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

So, all is lost…?  

Of course not! I would never write such a pessimistic blog. I’m not a hippie, but I’m NOT an emo!

We should welcome this new technology with open arms (and not just because it’s Guiness World Record breaking in length). Young Boyan has provided us with a legitimately ground-breaking device for purging large areas of plastic waste, allowing us to remove the problem, perhaps not at its source, but at a crucial point before the debris breaks down into a new, trickier format that we’re as yet unable to grapple with.

Technological development in the field of environmental conservation needs to be celebrated far and wide for what it is: Life-saving.

Many more innovative solutions are necessary for both waste reduction and waste management if we are to continue living our lives without killing the world around us.

 

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Our resilient ozone: When science spoke and we listened

In the 1980’s scientists discovered the devastating effect we were having on our ozone layer. By using various chemicals in manufacturing, and particularly in aerosols, we were inadvertently chipping away at our precious shield from the worst of the sun’s damaging radiation. Wasting no time, these savvy scientists educated us as to the importance of the ozone layer and warned us that its existence was threatened if we did not act.

Put aside for a minute the hilarious image of an 80’s scientist; yes, they existed. It wasn’t all crimped hair and leg warmers, some people were off being intelligent and learning things! Thank God for these serious souls too, because without them we likely would have happily continued to spray away our entire protective coating.

Fortunately, we didn’t continue living in ignorance. We were alerted to our unwittingly destructive behaviour and could therefore make the necessary changes in order to save our skins (literally).

And what a good news story we have today!

We are now seeing the direct benefits of our action as NASA reports the hole in the ozone layer is closing. What’s more, if our resilient ozone continues to repair itself at this rate the hole could be entirely gone by the end of the 21st century. Oh happy day!

Having successfully saved the day, it’s not surprising that those blessed scientists believe the triumph of this swift issue-to-action model should inform our future approach to environmental action.

Everyone except Tony Abbott would likely agree there is a blindingly obvious comparison to the pressing environmental issues (or ‘incoming environmental catastrophes’ for the scientists among us) we have today.

As part of the team that confirmed our ozone layer depletion problem three decades ago, Jon Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey was quick to point out this comparison, as he warned that the world isn’t treating this issue with the same seriousness.

“Yes, an international treaty was established fairly quickly to deal with the ozone hole, but really the main point about its discovery was that it shows how incredibly rapidly we can produce major changes to our atmosphere and how long it takes for nature to recover from them … Clearly, we still do not understand the full consequences of what we did then because we are still inflicting major changes on the atmosphere. Then it was chlorofluorocarbons; today it is greenhouse gases.”

The moral of this story is clear. Science spoke, we listened and we are now reaping the real-time rewards of our action.

Now if only we could learn from our successes, lest we need to learn from our mistakes.

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