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Making Garbage-Ade Out of Garbage

[ 16 ] July 23, 2010 |

With now multiple major oceanic oil spills occupying the world’s attention, a few commentators and NGOs are trying to remind us of the various other ecological disasters that may be getting less press. In perusing Ecocide’s top ten list, I learned about the “Great Pacific Trash Vortex” for the first time. As Time Magazine described last year:

It’s an accumulation of plastic debris swept into the Pacific — whether directly from beaches or flowing out of rivers — and carried by equatorial currents into a swirling pattern to one spot between Hawaii and the mainland U.S. Plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic toys — even last year’s Crocs — end up in the shifting vortex, which some scientists estimate to be twice the size of Texas.

Greenpeace’s website still says it’s only “the size of Texas.” Other sources I am reading now say there are actually two Pacific “gyres,” not one, and that together they’re currently estimated to be greater than the size of the continental United States. And they are only two of five such gyres globally. Whatever the amount of tonnage we’re actually talking about, it’s a disturbing – and disturbingly little-talked-about trend. And, as the Time article continues:

As plastic use increases, especially in rapidly growing developing nations on the western end of the Pacific, that vortex will continue to grow. “It’s huge,” notes Doug Woodring, an entrepreneur and ocean conservationist in Hong Kong. But “unfortunately the ocean is a big place, and once it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.”

Beyond simply not making it worse, I’ve seen few proposals for fixing the problem… until this past month. How about collecting all the garbage and turning it in the world’s first recycled habitat? The idea is being proposed by a Dutch architecture firm and described here.

Hmm… well first I’d like to know more about how they plan to cull all that plastic from the water in the first place. It’s not clear to me how techologically feasible that is, though if the problem is simply political will (the vortex exists in international waters and no one is really responsible for it) then a project like this could make some sense.

The Futurist’s Paul Raven is skeptical for other reasons:

Hmmm… an ideal candidate for city-state status, then. But any nation-state along the edge of the Pacific is going to be a bit uneasy about a recycled island that can move itself around at will, and which isn’t dependent on anyone for anything…

“Recycled Island” is a great idea from a technological perspective, but the geopolitics are too horrifying to contemplate. Think of the way Antarctica is being scrabbled over, thanks to its oil reserves; the very same economic pressures and scarcities will eventually make a huge lump of plastic floating in the sea look like a natural resource well worth exploiting.

I don’t know. First of all, who says the island will be independent of everyone else and why should an artificial island be any more horrifying than any other small oceanic statelet? Second, who says it will be floating around at will? The gyre stays where it is because of ocean currents.

If the collective action problems associated with the sovereign states system are part of what allows problems like this to arise and persist, perhaps either an internationalized governance structure akin to the Antarctica treaty or a post-sovereign “city-state” paradigm make more sense than doing nothing.

UPDATE: For more, here’s a thoughtful short film about our relationship to plastic – HT to “dsn”.

Comments (16)

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  1. Malaclypse says:

    The most horrifying part of this can be seen here (warning: the consequences of this plastic are shocking).

  2. Zifnab says:

    So you’ve got a pile of trash that stretches hundreds of miles across. How viable would it be to just mine the lump for plastic, ship it back to the mainland, and recycle it all?

    Is it really that much cheaper to make plastic from fresh oil than to pick it off the ocean and reuse it?

    • NonyNony says:

      Given how heavily oil is subsidized, it wouldn’t surprise me. Plus a lot of plastic isn’t actually recyclable in the sense that metal is – you can’t just melt down plastic and get resin again the way you can go back to molten metal. You generally see plastics recycled into other things. A lot of recycled plastic water bottles end up as plastic grocery bags (which then end up in landfills).

    • Jeremy says:

      From the beach cleaning I’ve done here in Japan, the local authorities say they can’t recycle plastic anyway, so it goes with the burnable trash. Something to do with the sea water contaminating or somehow screwing with the chemistry. I don’t know the that designers of the recycled island have thought this through completely…

      Additionally, hasn’t one of the gyres swung around towards Hawaii and dropped a bunch of garbage onto their famed beaches? That might get people doing something.

  3. SEK says:

    Is it Iron Council or The Scar in which China Mieville envisions something very much like this becoming a sovereign state? Or am I thinking of Stephenson’s Snow Crash? Any which way, the transformation of this thing into a sovereign state is heady territory in contemporary science fiction.

    • Malaclypse says:

      You are thinking of Snow Crash, I believe. I so need to re0read that.

      • Anonymous says:

        Snow Crash had that giant flotilla of ships filled with refugees, centered around an old aircraft carrier. IIRC when the flotilla approached mainland, the nearest “states” (or what passes for them in that book) would bribe the flotilla into a change of direction.

      • Doug says:

        Though there’s a flotilla of ships in The Scar that functions as a polity. At some point, the train company in Iron Council becomes self-sufficient as well, living off the land as it lays tracks.

    • Simple Mind says:

      In Snow Crash (I first learned about the great garbage vortex reading this book) there were “garbage people” who lashed their vessels together to form a conglomeration. Stephenson also seems to be right on the US security state judging from the WaPo story (which we all kinda knew about anyway).

  4. 'stina says:

    Knowledge of this thing caused me to really take all plastic recylcing seriously. Any plasitc item I come into contact with I now evaluate and determine what I’m going to do for disposal when it comes to the end of its natural lifespan. This thing just makes me sick thinking about. And it kills the animals that come into contact with it.

  5. dsn says:

    I’m surprised the discussion has made it this far without mentioning the brilliant Werner Herzog short film on the subject: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDBtCb61Sd4

  6. Woodrowfan says:

    at last, a place for the Liberterians to “go Galt” and set up their own country..

  7. Mudge says:

    I looked into the feasibilty (with some associates) of doing this a few years ago. Most of the pieces in the mid ocean are small and thus difficult to skim. The density of pieces is also small, so large areas would need to be cleaned in order to gather much refuse.

    We decided there was no way to do anything unless the entire enterprise was heavily subsidized, not to mention how long it would take. Imagine a ship that moves at 5 mph cleaning Texas. At 100 feet wide for a skimmer, a ship would have to go 53 miles (10 hours)to clean a square mile. At 300,000 square miles that’s 3 million hours (342 years). The density of the population of Texas is roughly 8 tons (90 people) per square mile; plastic in the Pacific is probably less dense. However for a ship that can carry 10,000 tons of cargo, it would need to scour 1250 square miles (nearly 1.5 years) to pick up a 10,000 ton load of people.

    The logistics to cleaning it up are daunting. Preventing further additions is a key first step.

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