New technology provides leap forward for local organization focused on ocean cleanup
The ocean is littered with plastic.
In the Pacific Ocean, it floats near the surface of the water and swirls around in a massive vortex of currents, creating a sort of polluted soup commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Because of the dynamic nature of the currents, the size and scope of the pollution has proved difficult to measure. Some say the garbage patch is approximately the size of Texas while others claim it covers an area larger than the continental United States. As hard as it is to measure the garbage patch, it is equally as challenging to fit it with a solution.
Since 2008, local environmental nonprofit The Clean Oceans Project (TCOP) has been looking at possible ways to locate and clean up this detrimental mess.
TCOP co-founders Nick Drobac and Jim “Homer” Holm have worked to develop remote-sensing technologies that will find areas with high concentrations of plastic waste in the ocean. They remain tight-lipped about the specifics of some of the technology they plan to use to collect the trash, but through their research they have found a new plastic-to-fuel machine that could play an important role in disposing of the debris.
Developed by Blest Co., a Japanese environmental engineering company, the “waste plastic oiling system” is a desktop-sized machine that can be used to convert waste plastic to gasoline, diesel and kerosene. At several recent events around town, Drobac and Holm have been giving demonstrations and generating a solid amount of interest.
The technology is “a combination between grandma’s pressure cooker and grandpa’s still,” says Holm. “Essentially it vaporizes [the plastic] in an oxygen-poor environment.” Once the plastic has been vaporized, it turns into crude oil and is then reconstituted into the different fuels.
Similar technology has traditionally required large processing plants to convert the plastic. However the Blest Co. unit represents an important development because it is small enough to be installed on a boat. “If we’re wildly successful at locating and collecting [plastic] material, you’ve got a disposal issue,” Drobac explains. “So if you’re a thousand or 2,000 miles off shore, and you’ve got a full belly of plastic material, your only alternative at that point is to truck it back to land and put it in a landfill.”
Getting to the garbage patch would require a long voyage, so converting the plastic at sea would make the trip cheaper and more environmentally sustainable. It would eliminate the environmental costs of hauling the trash while providing energy for the collection vessel. “Assuming we can locate and collect sufficient amounts, we can eliminate the need to go back to land to refuel or dispose of the material,” Drobac says. It also allows TCOP to put the fuel to use right away and continue its work; any excess fuel could be stored and then sold, generating funding for more ocean cleanup.
According to the developer, approximately 8.2 pounds of waste plastic will yield a gallon of crude oil. A small percentage of the plastic remains as residue, and the process also creates some hydrocarbon gases, which are decomposed into carbon dioxide and water.
Unfortunately, not all plastics can be converted to fuel. While polypropylene and polyethylene plastics, like bottle caps, grocery bags, and DVD cases, work well in the machine, it is unable to convert PET plastic—used frequently for beverage bottles. Still, the TCOP founders believe that the machine will help them toward their goal of making their project environmentally sustainable, and they hope to continue to demonstrate this revolutionary technology at as many venues as possible.
TCOP hopes to raise funds needed to take the plastic-to-fuel machine to sea this October and test it near Clipperton Island, an uninhabited island 800 miles off the coast of Mexico. Like many remote islands, Clipperton suffers from the effects of marine pollution. “[Clipperton] provides an interesting natural laboratory for monitoring debris, and a fantastic opportunity to test this technology at sea,” says Drobac.
Even though the size and scope of the plastic problem can seem overwhelming, Drobac and Holm remain convinced that new technology can help society clean up the mess it’s made.
“We get people who are fairly skeptical on many aspects of this project,” Holm says. “But as a general rule, when we sit down and talk with them, for the most part we come away with a fan rather than a detractor.” Visit thecleanoceansproject.org for more information.
Also: Take note of the following local ocean advocates and the work they’re doing, as reported by GT’s Dana Burd.
Every year, approximately 14 billion pounds of trash end up in the oceans, leaving marine species to suffer from entanglements or ingestion of debris.
With so much debris entering the ocean, it is no surprise that much the world’s biggest landfill is in the Pacific Ocean. For years activists and environmentalist from across the globe have banded together to form organizations for environmental change and to clean up the oceans. The largest scale effort has been the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, an annual cleanup day that has brought together hundreds of thousands of volunteers over the past 25 years to collect millions of pounds of trash and debris.
Read on to learn about a selection of such efforts working right here in the Santa Cruz area to preserve our local waters and beaches.
Save our Shores: Save our Shores (S.O.S.) is a nonprofit marine advocacy group that has been protecting Santa Cruz’s beaches for more than 30 years. The volunteer grassroots group successfully fought the placement of offshore oil rigs along the Central Coast in the late 1970s, and from that effort, Save our Shores was born with the aim of protecting the Monterey Bay from future threats. Their work is driven by three core efforts: reducing and removing plastic pollution, bringing ocean awareness to the community, and fighting for clean boating initiatives. In celebration of Earth Day 2011, 193 S.O.S. volunteers swarmed local beaches and waterways and collected 2,417 pounds of trash, preventing it from entering the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Save Our Shores recently banned together with 32 other environmental organizations (including The Clean Oceans Project, Surfer’s Environmental Alliance, Ecology Action, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Santa Cruz and Monterey chapters of the Surfrider Foundation, and many others) to form the Central Coast Sanctuary Alliance, which initiated and supports bans on single-use plastic bags. The alliance hopes that by passing bans on single-use plastic bags, hundreds of species of marine animals will be protected from suffocation or strangulation caused by plastic bag litter. Visit saveourshores.org for more information.
Surfrider Foundation: The Surfrider Foundation was founded more than 25 years ago in Malibu, Calif., and to date has grown to have more than 75 chapters across 15 countries, with 20 chapters in California, including Santa Cruz and Monterey. It is a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to using conservation, activism, research and education to preserve the world’s oceans and beaches. The Santa Cruz Surfrider Foundation sponsors monthly beach cleanups, water testing for E. Coli bacteria in swimming areas, educational outreach programs to local schools, universities and businesses, and storm drain stenciling. Cities are required by federal law to help prevent ocean pollution, and the stenciling program came from the desire to help Santa Cruz meet this requirement. Volunteers go out in groups to stencil local storm drains that lead directly to the beach, with the words “No Dumping Drains to Ocean.” Visit surfridersantacruz.org for information on how to get involved with our local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
Rep. Sam Farr’s Marine Debris Act: Santa Cruz’s congressional representative and co-chair of the House Oceans Caucus Sam Farr (D-17th District), recently introduced bipartisan legislation to the U.S. House of Representatives that would reauthorize and amend the Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act of 2006. The reauthorization aims to amend the existing act to address the effects of debris on marine ecosystems, coastal economies, and navigation safety, taking on a four-pronged approach of debris source identification, prevention, removal, and monitoring these efforts. Learn more about the act at govtrack.us.
Food for thought:
• The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic
• 65-80 percent of marine debris is plastic—which takes up to 450 years to degrade
• Over the past 25 years, International Coastal Cleanup’s 8.7 million volunteers have collected 144 million pounds of trash across 291,514 miles of beaches, lakes and waterways
• Their volunteers have also removed more than 166 million pieces of trash including: 52.9 million cigarettes or cigarette filters and 7.8 million plastic bags
• An estimated 80 percent of all debris originates from land-based sources, according to NOAA