A floating mass of plastic twice the size of Texas
Are we in California yet, daddy?
A friend of mine's family moved from Florida to California in the 1960s. His parents drove all the way, with my (at the time) ten year-old friend in the back seat of their station wagon. To this day, he talks about the eternity it took to cross Texas. I suppose when you're ten years old, two days in the back of a Buick must be a long time.
It's hard to fathom (no pun intended) the enormity of a floating island of plastic twice the size of Texas, but several such floating islands exist atop the earth's oceans. If it takes 20 hours to drive across Texas at 60 mph, then it must take a week to cross a patch of ocean twice that size if you're sailing at 20 mph.
Think for a moment about just how big a challenge it would be to fix this problem:
- If you were to "scoop" it up with nets, how big would they have to be?
- Would you scoop up the big bits first -- with one type of net -- and return to scoop up the successively smaller bits? You know how quickly filters clog up.
- Would you have to stop your ship while you empty the nets into a container, then begin the scooping process again?
- How many passes would you have to make, with how many ships and when would you know the job is done?
- Where would you bring the collected trash?
- Might you make the problem worse, at least for a while, as containers you disturb break open and spill all manner of contents into the sea?
- Would another big island collect soon after you've cleaned up the existing one?
- Are ships' propellers at risk while traveling through the trash?
- Are birds, fish and other animals at risk, and are they introducing the trash into our food chain by ingesting parts of it?
- Is the role sunlight plays in the ocean ecosystem being disturbed?
- For all the plastic that is floating -- for not all plastic floats, and what does, does not do so forever -- how much has sunk to the bottom of the ocean to begin to interfere with other complex elements of the planet's ecosystem?
- At what point do fish harvested from the sea become inedible by humans because of the contaminated foodchain?
- Even if the Plastic Island were to cease growing today, how long would it take before it was completely broken down and reabsorbed into the environment?
Pea soup. Salt already added.
It would seem to me to be like using a fork to remove peas from pea soup. It takes forever.
Is there a good side to all of this? Some say that marine life would benefit greatly by becoming inedible. Once we humans stop eating them, they might have a chance to repopulate. Of course, there's the Third World. They can't stop eating fish just because it is inedible. They'd starve. But I digress.
No ship, Batman!
What about using a specially designed ship to tackle the problem? As it ploughed through the water, its wide opening at the bow would scoop up the top 10 feet of ocean water -- and all its contents -- and drain off the water. It would then compress the remaining trash into blocks. Or perhaps it would burn it on the spot. Plastic burns, right? And with proper filtration of the smoke, most of the pollution could be contained. The burning could be used somehow to power the ship's engines and equipment. What's left could be either dropped into the ocean as fast-sinking, inert pellets of carbonized plastic, or collected to be brought back to land.
An automatically piloted ship that used the trash to power its movement and operation could, in theory, run indefinitely, back and forth, criss-crossing the big Island of Plastic, night and day, until the proverbial poop was cleaned from the carpet. Much like in the animated movie, the little robot who had the job of compressing the entire planet's trash into blocks, while humans waited off-planet for life to reemerge, our "Trash Ship" would work tirelessly to clean up our mess for us.
Those of you old enough to have watched Thunderbirds in the 1960s might remember a particular episode where a machine designed to scoop up countryside and spit out finished motorway behind it went out of control. Ah, well... ahem .. forget that bit about the machine running amok and think about the fact that it turned inert raw materials into functional infrastructure.
I'd ask for the assistance of that dashing Branson chap who owns the Virgin Green Fund, or the Dyson fellow who invented the bagless vacuum cleaner. Between the two of them, they could probably come up with the Virgin Ocean Bagless Trash Collector. With a little ingenuity, perhaps the ship could spit out Trex-like planks of timber to be used as an alternative to wood in the construction of decks and who knows what else. Heck, the whole thing could actually make money! Are any of you greedy capitalists listening out there? If most of the floating island actually is plastic -- I imagine it is, because it floats and is not dissolving -- then we might be on to a winner here, especially if oil prices stay high.
You heard it here first.
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