NEWPORT BEACH, California—As a lifelong surfer, Louis Pazos has had an up-close look at the world’s plastics problem. Just about every time he has paddled out at any of his favorite breaks in Southern California, he has ended up swimming among trash bags and other rubbish.
But the floating garbage isn’t just offshore. Twenty years ago, on a lunch date at a waterfront restaurant with his wife, he noticed that the same debris he was swimming with in the open ocean was floating in the local harbors as well.
“I remember people cleaning up the trash in one spot in the marina, and within five minutes, the wind had blown more trash to the spot they had just cleaned,” Pazos said. “I thought, there’s got to be a better way.”
Inspiration struck where so many Southern Californians spend too much time—the freeway.
“I was stuck in L.A. traffic one day and literally started drawing plans for my trash skimmer in the car,” he said.
Over the next decade, Pazos worked on perfecting what he calls the Marina Trash Skimmer—a floating container that’s fastened to the side of a dock and looks like a Dumpster semi-submerged in water. It’s equipped with a pump that circulates water through its filter system, gently sucking in and trapping debris inside.
The contraption has been a godsend to Newport Harbor, an inlet home to more than 9,000 sailboats, yachts, and fishing vessels in Southern California’s tony Newport Beach community.
Here, floating trash isn’t usually the first thing you’ll notice, but turn your eyes from the waterfront homes (Nicolas Cage sold his for $35 million in 2007) and pleasure craft (John Wayne’s Wild Goose still floats dockside), and the problem plaguing the world’s oceans becomes evident. Bits of floating debris, plastic trash bags, straws, Styrofoam cups, and more are scattered around the harbor.
“It’s trash that we previously just ignored,” Pazos said. “But instead of sinking to the bottom of the ocean or floating far out to sea, we’re able to get it out of the water and stop the environmental damage.”
Since his first test runs in Long Beach Harbor in 2006, Pazos has installed 49 Marina Trash Skimmers in states including Hawaii, California (six in Newport Beach alone), Oregon, and Texas. So far, the contraptions have removed more than 1 million pounds—or 500 tons—of primarily plastic-based debris.
Pazos’ skimmers are just one of a number of sustainable design solutions aimed at staving off an environmental catastrophe across the world’s oceans.
Other inventors around the globe are exploring big ideas that test the bounds of imagination. These innovations differ in size, scope, price, and feasibility, but what they have in common is a goal of ridding the seas of the vast levels of a substance threatening just about every ocean-dwelling animal—plastic.
Plastic the Terrible
Everything that makes plastic attractive for human use—versatility, durability, and cheap price—is a curse for marine life.
We don’t value plastic, so we throw it away—a majority of it goes to landfills or is recycled. Still, more than 8 million tons of plastic weasel their way into the oceans every year. At sea, plastics degrade slowly and break down into smaller and smaller bits, growing more brittle as they float farther out. Those floating pieces, some 5.25 trillion of them—many smaller than a grain of rice—can be ingested by just about anything alive. Researchers have found albatrosses with stomachs full of bottle caps. An autopsy of a sperm whale stranded off Germany’s coast earlier this year revealed a 43-foot-long plastic fishing net and a plastic car engine cover in the animal’s stomach. Corals at the Great Barrier Reef could be ingesting as many bits of plastic as they are bits of food.
More than 600 species are affected by plastic waste in the ocean, and while we don’t yet know the full impacts of plastic pollution on every animal, we continue to pump out more plastic. Global production has doubled almost every decade since 1950, and we’re now producing more than 300 million tons of the material a year.
“Trying to figure out the full historical amount of plastic we’ve actually put in the ocean since the 1950s is really anyone’s guess,” said Erik van Sebille, a climate scientist and an oceanographer at Imperial College London in London.
Last year, van Sebille combined data from multiple ocean plastic expeditions and studies conducted over the past two decades to create a “global inventory” of plastic debris at sea. Between 50,000 and 250,000 tons are floating in the ocean. The discrepancy exists because there are large swaths of ocean where barely any plastic measurements have been conducted, van Sebille said, but whatever the actual number, “it’s still at most only 1 percent of the total amount of plastic that’s entering the ocean each year.”
Where the rest goes remains a mystery. We know animals are eating it, some of it is sinking to the ocean floor, and some is turning into a veritable plastic soup, but we don’t know how much is going where and what impact it’s having.
What we do know is that a lot of people want to clean it up. The question is, What’s the best innovation for such an enormous task?
How and Where to Start
There’s a long history of ocean cleanup solutions and, some would say, a bright future. Huge ships are heading out to sea picking up millions of tons of plastic debris. The moonshot version of that is a teenager’s vision becoming a reality with the 62-mile-long, multimillion-dollar Ocean Cleanup array, aimed at capturing plastic thousands of miles from shore. Then there are smaller-scale solutions that rely on mariners’ seashore stewardship: a bin made of recycled plastic that could suck up plastic in harbors before it ventures out to sea and even a solar-powered trash wheel wrangling plastic in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
At the heart of the variety of innovations being considered are differing techniques for picking up ocean rubbish—and part of that is because there is still debate on where in the water plastic collecting should target.
Globally, there are five ocean gyres where circulating ocean currents accumulate high concentrations of plastic. The most famous of these is the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, swirling between California and Hawaii. The media ran with the “garbage patch” moniker coined by Algalita Marine Research and Education’s Charles Moore in 1999, conjuring up images of a Texas-size island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are almost entirely made up of bits of plastic called microplastics—hard to see and even harder to pick up.
For Marcus Eriksen, a marine scientist and the founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, the closer to the source you can get plastics removed, the better off all living matter is. A five-year study he coauthored found there was sufficient plastic in the five gyres to construct enough two-liter bottles that—if stacked end on end—they could make it to the moon and back, twice.
“But 92 percent of that plastic is tiny, tiny pieces,” Eriksen said. “And we’re kind of stuck here trying to change the perception of what’s out in those patches. It’s not big stuff you can just go clean up.”
Once plastic leaves land, it starts eroding, shredding, and breaking down into smaller and smaller bits the farther offshore it gets.
“When we’re out there in the gyre, we’re not finding straws and bottles—we’re finding tiny pieces that probably were part of a straw at one time,” Eriksen said. “When we’re trawling for plastic, even in the thickest accumulation zones of the Pacific Gyre, our nets only pull up about a half cup of microplastics over a two-mile stretch. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of plastic out there—it’s just very, very small.”
Small-Scale Example of a Large-Scale Issue
In Newport Beach, a microcosm of the ocean pollution problem took place within the confines of the harbor. It started in 1989, when Bill Hamilton, a local waterfront restaurant owner, got sick of looking at all the trash floating around the harbor.
He watched harbor maintenance crews use dip nets—basically pool-cleaning nets—to fish out debris and—like Pazos—he thought there must be a better way. Within a year, he had constructed an 18-foot boat equipped with a conveyor belt.
“The idea was that you’d run over the trash; it would run up the conveyor belt and into a trash can on board that you’d empty later,” said Newport Beach Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller.
Hamilton donated the $50,000 boat, dubbed the SS Trash, in 1992 to the city, which paid to operate it in the harbor.
Don Webb, the city’s public works director at the time, remembers the boat mostly sitting idle on the docks.
“It didn’t make much sense, because the debris in our harbor only really gathers in a couple spots, in corners and areas the boat really couldn’t get to,” Webb said. “So unless it was after a big rain and there was debris everywhere, there wasn’t much for the boat to pick up.”
With the SS Trash foundering, Pazos and his Marina Trash Skimmers moved in.
“You put a few of these in strategic places in harbors where trash likes to gather, and you can slowly, steadily clean a large percentage of the floating debris you see,” Pazos said. “And marina managers and harbor operators are starting to take notice.”
The failed efforts of Hamilton’s SS Trash and the promise of Pazos’ skimmers in Newport Harbor could have implications for the cleanup solutions forming around the world’s oceans today.
The Offshore Dream
Three years ago, Dutch engineer Boyan Slat’s teenage dream to clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch was launched.
With The Ocean Cleanup project, Slat—now 21—and his team of 70 scientists, engineers, and communications professionals say they can clean up half the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in a decade. The plan, outlined in a 530-page feasibility report, is extensive.
It includes placing more than 62 miles of floating barriers at sea in the middle of one of the gyres. The booms will “passively corral floating plastics” as wind and ocean currents push them toward a central collection platform that will sort and process the items. Boats will pick up the recovered plastics every six weeks, and the hope is that they can be recycled or used as fuel back on land.
So far, the project has received $2.2 million in crowdfunding money from more than 38,000 backers, making it the most successful campaign of its kind in history. This month the team plans to install a scaled-down prototype device off the Netherlands coast.
While the project is taking steps forward and has garnered considerable online enthusiasm and hope from conservationists, skeptics have raised concerns.
Aside from the fact that nothing so large has ever been constructed on the open ocean or anchored to the seafloor at such depths (double that of any oil platform in existence), scientists familiar with how the ocean works have raised several issues with the project.
One main concern for wildlife conservationists is that the device could harm the animals it intends to help. By its nature, the debris at sea known as flotsam—no matter the material—can become a haven for floating marine life to glom on to. Algae, clams, sea anemones, and mussels have been found on floating particles, and that wildlife will end up injured or killed during the collection process.
The unknown ecological impact of filtering life from a giant stretch of ocean for 10 years is what worries Jennifer Brandon, a graduate student who researches microplastics at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, about Slat’s contraption.
“They haven’t yet figured out how to get down to small enough plastics to have a real impact on ocean debris, but if they do, they have no way of doing that without the collateral damage of destroying fish eggs, larvae, and plankton that’s attached to it,” Brandon said.
When asked whether ocean gyres were the best places to focus cleanup efforts, The Ocean Cleanup consultant Jan van Ewijk said, “First of all, it is of course necessary to clean up the plastic soup that is currently in the ocean gyres. Secondly, though, it is also imperative that people stop polluting the oceans. Otherwise all the work done by [The Ocean Cleanup] will have been for naught. Ceasing plastic pollution will require a different mind-set by consumers, companies, and governments.”
For now, Slat is trying to get his first prototype to function in the North Sea. He declined to be interviewed.
Eriksen was supportive of Slat’s project until questions regarding structural integrity and marine life impact proved to be unanswerable. The science and engineering has yet to catch up with the scope of Slat’s ideas, yet the push from thousands of online backers who helped turn The Ocean Cleanup into one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns ever has left Eriksen empathetic of Slat’s position.
“It’s like he’s stuck with this idea now, no matter what any scientists say or the feedback they give,” Eriksen said. “He’s got this funding base, and they have high expectations. They’re expecting him to save the ocean with a silver-bullet solution.”
The Nearshore Reality
In addition to his research on the global inventories of ocean plastic, climate scientist van Sebille published a study earlier this year that looked at where in our waterways are the most efficient areas to collect plastic while inflicting the least amount of harm on wildlife.
Van Sebille finds focusing on nearshore cleanup is more efficient than trying to target garbage patches in the middle of the ocean. For projects such as the Ocean Cleanup, focusing efforts on nearshore locations was found to be more efficient in capturing plastic than focusing on open-ocean locations like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In one example, the study found that if plastic collectors were placed near the coasts of China and the Indonesian islands over a 10-year period, they would remove 31 percent of microplastics in the water. If the same collectors were placed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over a 10-year period, only 17 percent of microplastics would be removed.
They haven’t yet figured out how to get down to small enough plastics to have a real impact on ocean debris, but if they do, they have no way of doing that without the collateral damage of destroying fish eggs, larvae, and plankton that’s attached to it.
Jennifer Brandon, micro-plastics researcher at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography
“It makes sense to remove plastics where they first enter the ocean around dense coastal economic and population centers,” van Sebille said. “It also means you can remove the plastics before they have had a chance to do any harm.”
One nearshore solution making waves recently comes from the Seabin Project. A spin-off of Pazos’ Marina Trash Skimmer, the Seabin is an automated trash bin that can attach to marina docks and suck up any floating debris nearby.
The simple design comes from Australians Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski, whose January Indiegogo campaign roped in more than $267,000 in funding.
They’re now on their fifth version of the product, which uses the elements of a pool skimmer: Water flows in from the top and is pump through a filter on the bottom, capturing marine debris, oil, fuel, and even detergent as it moves.
Priced at around $3,300 per unit, Seabins can be placed strategically in harbors wherever trash accumulates, but they must be plugged into a shore-based water pump. Once installed, Ceglinski estimates that each unit could be responsible for removing a half ton of plastic per year.
“We’re able to catch both the big stuff, like plastic bags, and a lot of the microplastics, down to pieces just two millimeters in size,” he said. In the latest iteration, the team has been able to use recycled plastic in the Seabin apparatus, meaning once the products are capturing plastic in marinas, that plastic can, in theory, be turned into more Seabins.
“The ultimate circular economy—catching plastic to make Seabins to catch more plastic,” Ceglinski said.
Other nearshore success stories include Baltimore’s Water Wheel, located where the Jones Falls River flows into the city’s Inner Harbor and eventually to Chesapeake Bay. The trash interceptor was developed by Waterfront Partnership in 2014 and has removed more than 400 tons of garbage from the harbor, including 250,000 plastic bottles, 300,000 Styrofoam cups, 7 million cigarette butts, and 170,000 plastic grocery bags.
The $700,000 contraption uses the river’s current to turn its wheel, which slowly rotates a conveyor belt that lifts debris out of the water and into a Dumpster barge (solar panels power the rig when the current is too weak). At peak operation, it can remove 50,000 pounds of trash in one day.
While the wheel is a pricey option, its success led officials from Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, and nearly 30 U.S. cities to ask city officials about Baltimore’s wheel, Waste Dive reported last year.
The Onshore Fix
In terms of both marine debris removal and raising awareness of the plastic pollution problem, not many cleanup efforts can compete with an old-fashioned beach cleanup—especially one as large as the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup Day.
In 2015, more than 800,000 volunteers from countries including Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines, the U.S., and Mexico joined to remove more than 18 million pounds of trash from beaches and inland waterways in a single day.
Since Ocean Conservancy started the cleanups more than 30 years ago, more than 220 million pounds of trash have been collected.
“We know that beach cleanups are not the end solution to our plastics problem,” said Allison Schutes, senior manager for the conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “But it’s hard to argue with that much trash no longer on our beaches, in our waters, and harming marine life.”
While the tonnage figures are impressive, Schutes said the changing perceptions of plastics and marine debris among volunteers in recent years could be just as effective in the long run.
“People aren’t talking about the ‘garbage patch you can walk across’ anymore—they’re talking about ways to stop using plastics altogether, and how to avoid using products with microbeads,” Schutes said. “This is where we get the interest started. If we can get people engaged on the level of how it affects their beaches and oceans, information on changing waste infrastructure and improving recycling might not fall on deaf ears.”
For Marcus Eriksen at 5 Gyres, the progress on managing plastics upstream of oceans has been encouraging. The quick movement by the Obama administration to ban microbeads—microscopic plastic bits used in personal care products—is a sign that policy makers are moving in the right direction.
Now he’s curious whether the plastic industry will become more heavily recycled or will push toward a “plastics as fuel” model—with technology companies hoping to convert millions of tons of plastic waste into synthetic fuel that can power diesel engine vehicles.
“The linear economic thinking wants to convert plastics to fuel; that way, there remains a need to produce more plastics,” Eriksen said. “Circular economic thinking pushes us into recycling more and more, establishing a zero-waste system where less new plastic has to be produced each year. Right now, the plastic industry relies on a majority of the world’s plastic products to end up in landfills, so they can sustain their growth.”
That push to keep the plastics industry humming along means that by 2050, the volume of plastic trash in the ocean will outweigh all of the fish left in it.
“It’s coming to a head here, with how much plastic we can really sustain,” Eriksen said. “We’re not a limitless planet, and it’s going to come down to corporate responsibility to take ownership of the entire life of the products they create.”