Imagine a world free of plastic waste, where marine ecosystems thrive, and birds are no longer at risk of being entrapped in plastic rings.
Many scientists, individuals, and even businesses are doing their part to limit plastic use and make that happen. However, although this is promising and helpful, the current plastic waste that has already found a home in earth's ecosystems needs to be dealt with.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization found that 80% of global marine pollution results from land-based sources.
As a result of this excess waste from land-based sources, a giant concentrated garbage patch is floating around the Pacific, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a sub-sector of the U.S. Department of Commerce, this garbage floats around the entirety of the North Pacific, making it difficult to measure accurately.
The organization debunks the myth that this patch is akin to an island but instead describes it as having tons of debris spread throughout the ocean, much of it microscopic.
According to the NOAA, "Ocean debris is continuously mixed by wind and wave action and widely dispersed both over huge surface areas and throughout the top portion of the water column."
"It is also difficult to estimate the size of these 'patches' because the borders and content constantly change with ocean currents and winds," says the NOAA. "Regardless of the exact size, mass, and location of the 'garbage patch,' artificial debris does not belong in our oceans and waterways and must be addressed."
Though the estimates are just that, NOAA believes the size of the patch to span more than double the size of Texas.
The organization has also determined that the most common form of ocean pollution is cigarette butts, made of a tiny, plastic-like wrapping that doesn't quickly degrade, resulting in thousands of tiny micro-plastics ending up in the ocean due to just one cigarette.
What does all this mean? First, it means that marine ecosystems are at risk of impairment. Second, it means that humans can also see negative impacts from marine pollution via a method known as bioaccumulation.
To put it simply, microplastic ends up in the ocean, fish eat it, and then humans catch that fish and eat it, resulting in the microplastic from the fish now being introduced to the human body.
Even though this isn't the case with every fish consumed, it is remarkable enough to gain more mainstream attention within the past few years.
Despite all of this, dedicated researchers are working to rid the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of its pollution and make the ocean a cleaner and healthier place for all.
One such way to do this is via the standard method of plastic waste recovery, the act of large recovery boats removing the trash and bringing it back to the land where it can be disposed of properly.
One noteworthy discrepancy with cleaning up ocean plastic is the amount of fuel needed to do so. When a ship is recovering plastic, it can only carry so much before it needs to head back to port, dispose of the plastic, and then go back to the ocean to continue recovering more. This can result in added emissions and potentially even added waste, making the recovery process even longer, more costly, and not as effective.
Announcements of a way to mitigate this have only recently come to light and seemingly have the potential to make a difference.
Researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts believe that the process known as hydrothermal liquefaction can allow them to break down plastic on-site and directly convert it to usable energy.
Hydrothermal liquefaction is the method of transforming wet biomass into biocrude oil via an enclosed reactor. The reactor is heated to 200-400°C and pressurized to 10–25 MPa to make the conversion occur.
The report states that "for the highest concentrations, enough plastic can be collected to generate fuel with an excess of 480% that can be stored and used for trips to and from the GPGP [Great Pacific Garbage Patch], eliminating the need for the use of any fossil fuels."
Micael Timko, a chemical engineer and one of the researchers on the project, estimates that, by utilizing their process, a ship could convert up to 11,500 tons of plastic each year.
In addition, though burning the plastic-turned-fuel would result in emissions, they are estimated to be still far less than traditional fossil fuel, meaning that the overall process would seemingly result in a net positive.
Continued research and trial runs in this area will provide for a better understanding of the potential. Moreover, its conditional success could even open the gates for plastic-turned-fuel to be implemented in other areas, such as for vehicles or even large cruise ships.
The potential for this outcome is seemingly endless, and its current state is undoubtedly a positive sign of hope.