Updated: Jul 7, 2020
What happens to plastic when it ends up at sea? The answer to this question is not so simple and may surprise you. From ocean currents to garbage islands, passing through innovative collection and recycling systems, there is a whole floating world to discover.
Currently more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic float on the planet's oceans. Waste accumulates in 5 main geographical areas due to sea currents. The largest and most extensive of these is the so-called "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", located between Japan and North America. This huge plastic island was formed over the years following the course of an ocean current known as the "North Pacific Subtropical Gyre" that rotates clockwise around an area of 20 million square kilometers. These accumulations of plastic waste not only are likely to pollute the marine environment but also turning into microplastics and ending up on our tables. Therefore, if on the one hand, the need to remove these islands of waste is evident, on the other the problem is that the costs to do so are likely to be very high. In addition, it has been estimated that thousands of years and tens of billions of dollars would take to collect the waste that makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch using conventional methods such as ships and nets. The original idea of "The Ocean Cleanup" permits to remove waste "passively" and estimates to reduce by 50% the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just 5 years at a small fraction of the expected costs. Founded in 2013 by the eighteen-year-old inventor Boyan Slat, The Ocean Cleanup is a Dutch non-profit foundation. It is made up of a team of more than 90 engineers, researchers and scientists who work every day intending to eliminate plastic from the world’s oceans.
The innovative passive collection method
This innovative system involves the construction of an artificial and floating "coastline", which allows the accumulation of plastic and debris spread across millions of square kilometers. This collection method can be defined as passive. Indeed, it uses three oceanic forces to operate: currents, waves, and wind. The sea currents allow the floating barrier to move together with the plastic and to autonomously drift towards the areas with the highest waste concentration. The waves and the wind, on the other hand, make the barrier advance faster than the waste itself, which is pushed forward only by the force of the currents. Furthermore, the debris is blocked not only at the surface level but also up to three meters deep, without affecting the health of the fish swimming in those waters. These peculiarities make the floating system a “tireless waste hunter” that operates ecologically and dynamically. Once the plastic is concentrated in the floating barriers, it is loaded onto ships and brought ashore for recycling.
Clean up the rivers to clean up the seas...
Rivers are the main source of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans. They are the arteries that carry the garbage from the land to the sea. Research shows that only 1000 rivers in the world are responsible for around 80% of the pollution. Therefore, they represent a relevant component of the problem and by acting on them the marine accumulation of plastic materials could be prevented. This is precisely the second ambitious goal of The Ocean Cleanup, which has created some floating barriers for the collection of river waste. The so-called "Interceptor" is a machine that collects plastic autonomously and environmentally friendly: it is 100% powered by solar energy. Once again, the ultimate goal is to recycle and reuse the collected materials.
A circular perspective
The example of The Ocean Cleanup highlights the importance of recycling plastic materials. The plastic that pollutes the world's oceans and rivers every day can be recovered, recycled and reused. These are the foundations of a circular economy that aims to reduce environmental impacts effectively and efficiently. For us at Soluzioni Plastiche, recycling plastic means "reopening the circle", and giving new life to this precious resource. What follows is the development of innovative products that create value both for the environment and society.