Environment News Science

Ocean Cleanup

We have all heard about the problem of the oceans getting cluttered up with plastic. Unfortunately, solving the problem of marine plastic pollution is not as simple as picking up all of the pieces of plastic. While a lot of plastic pollution is concentrated in the gyres, it is not floating in a single mass on the surface. Pieces of plastic are distributed vertically, through the water column. Plastic breaks down into tiny particles in the ocean, making clean-up efforts very difficult. One of the many challenges of cleanup is how to remove the plastics from the ocean without also removing or damaging marine life.

The Natural Resources Defense Council website has lots of information related to the problem. They also describe some of the possible solutions as also being problematic. This is what they say about bioplastics and their marketing:

“The term “bioplastics” is increasingly being used to refer to a wide range of products, some of which are primarily or entirely plant-derived, others of which contain fossil-fuel-derived plastic, and all of which might be biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, some combination, or none of the above. While many companies are marketing these products as “green” alternatives to traditional plastics, the reality is more complex. Even biodegradable and compostable plastics are typically designed to break down efficiently only in commercial composting systems; on land or in water, these plastics generally persist long enough to cause potential hazards to water systems and wildlife. Any plastic, regardless of whether it is derived from plants or from fossil fuels, should be properly disposed of, and ideally should be recyclable and/or compostable to avoid the need to landfill.

Besides the issues related to improper disposal, production of bioplastics is also potentially problematic. Corn-based bioplastics are some of the most widely available bioplastics today — while these represent a positive step in the growing market toward finding alternatives to non-renewable, fossil-fuel-derived plastic, they rely on the production of corn, which raises concerns about agricultural impacts on land use, food production and global warming. These production impacts are all significantly reduced by specifying bioplastic products made from waste-based agricultural residues (residues left over after harvest from an existing agricultural land use which would otherwise be treated as waste). Replacing some current plastics with renewable bioplastics (especially those made using agricultural residues) is a promising way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but more research is needed to develop better products which will reduce the reliance on non-renewable resources and address concerns associated with marine plastic pollution”.

Interesting food for thought, so bioplastics do not seem to offer a solution. What we need to do is stop putting plastics into the oceans and try to get the plastic out that is already there.

The Ocean Clean up organization believe they have found a viable way to proceed with the removal part of my great plan, and have launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise the money to put their idea into full production. 19-year-old Boyan Slat has been leading a team that have designed a system that helps the ocean to clean itself. The system uses a series of solid floating barriers that are placed in the ocean. The currents and wind force the ocean to pass under the barriers, but anything that floats or is neutral in the water (plastic for example) cannot pass and so is collected in the boom. The plastic collected can then be reused. The website has a more detailed explanation and a glossy video.

This concentration of the waste means that it can then be removed from the booms easily, and at much lower cost both economically and environmentally that using other methods. Check out the concept here.

So all they need is to raise $2 million to step up into the next phase. At the time of writing the crowdfunding campaign has raised more than $765,000, and with 80 days to go it looks hopeful to me. If you have a few quid to spare it might be a good investment.

Readers might like to have a look at a post I wrote earlier this year about the INSS meeting in Charlotte. The post includes a review and photos of an art installation called “The Real Toy Story”, that includes a giant baby stuffed with waste plastic taken from the sea.

Business Environment Technology

Deep Sea Mining Agreement

bbc bulk cutter

Time moves like molasses as they say here, but it moves.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post called Mining the Seabed. Almost exactly a year before that I wrote a post about the possibility of sending robots to mine asteroids. All science fiction I heard you say, but oh wait.

A couple of weeks ago Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian mining corporation, signed a deal with the Papua New Guinea government to start digging (mining) the seabed just off their coast.

The mining will be done from the surface. A series of large machines (310 tonnes), one of which we see in the photo above, will be operated from ships, placed on the seabed and will effectively break up the top layer so that the ore can be pumped up as slurry (muddy stuff).

Now this doesn’t sound too good to me, but the operators claim that “It’s a resilient system and studies show that life will recover in 5-10 years. An active venting site 1km to the south East has the same bugs and snails and the current will carry the bugs and snails to the mine site. We expect it to recover quite quickly.”

Greenpeace don’t agree. The truth is we don’t really know who is right. What we do know though is that there is big money involved. The bed is rich in gold and copper, and we need this stuff for far more than wedding rings and rheumatism charms.

Now as some of you will know, my mission in life is to promote responsible innovation through my work at the Bassetti Foundation, and we can take a look at the developments above from this perspective. We all use gold and copper, and it is in great demand. My computer won’t work without electricity, copper cables, solder, silicon etc, so we can be as forthright as we like but we are the ones creating the demand.

Companies are looking to supply us and make a profit, there now seems to be a viable mining approach that will involve getting it from under the oceans. Nobody will be able to stop them doing it, so we need to think about how they are going to do it, and where.

There is probably no real way of knowing how quickly the seabed will reform or how much damage is going to be caused, there are no qualified experts in mining to conduct the operations (it’s a first time gig) and international regulation still needs to be drawn.

There does not seem to have been much public debate, we won’t be able to monitor proceedings ourselves and at the best of times, mining is a dirty affair.

So this could be a disaster waiting to happen, or it could be a fantastic opportunity to create a framework that could address all of the problems above and be applicable in other fields.

Last year some academics published an article about their experiences working in a geoengineering project. Similar set of problems as described above, but social scientists were involved in the project and participated in the decision-making process. The outcome was extremely interesting, the project scientists decided to suspend their research and rethink their positions. The article is free to download here, where there is also a more precise description. It’s easy to read and very interesting.

Business Environment

Aquaculture – mankind’s future?

A photograph of a fishery at sunsetAs the world’s fisheries come under ever increasing demand and pressure, many companies and countries around the world are turning to aquaculture, the farming of fish, crustaceans, aquatic plants, and shellfish. But is this method of producing food the “green” answer it is often claimed to be?

Aquaculture is not a new concept by any means, there is evidence that suggests the farming of aquatic life was taking place as early as 6000bc on what could be called a commercial scale.

The modern age has mechanised, computerised, and scaled up this concept of food production into one of truly immense proportions. South America alone produces over a startling one million metric tons of farmed salmon per year, with methods some have described as unsustainable.

Globally, aquaculture has been a very erratic business in the last 40 years, with major outbreaks of disease wiping out hundreds of thousands of tons of fish at a time, and poor practices responsible for localised environmental changes, and pollution on a large scale.

A huge steel or plastic floating structure, anchored in place and powered by massive diesel generators has become the standard sea farm with what is described as a “footprint” devoid of life beneath it, that may extend some distance depending on local currents and conditions.

Fish being caught in Te Pangu BayIs this what Jacques Yves Cousteau envisioned when he made the following famous quote?

“We must plant the sea and herd its animals using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about – farming replacing hunting.”

But then, if one considers the reality of the world we live in, where violent conflict is an everyday occurrence, populations continue to grow and people go hungry …… then I think aquaculture is a step in the right direction.

Aquaculture in New ZealandIt could be argued that most aquacultural products demand a premium and in many countries are beyond the means of the average consumer. And this would be quite correct in many cases, but may in some part be off-set by the direct benefits to the local economy through job creation and a direct boost to the local economy.

The single greatest benefit aquaculture is receiving at the moment is technology. Automated systems deliver pellets to fish in a highly measured manner and consumption is monitored in points of a percentage. Geneticists are carrying out selective breeding programs so only the most efficient of stock are sent to sea and environmental monitoring is carried out using an array of high tech sensors and systems.

Water quality tests and histologies are carried out on site and the training requirements of staff are increasing exponentially in order to keep up. Thousands of scientists are busy scuttling about, working day and night on improving “feed conversion ratios” or the amount of feed in kilograms it takes to grow a kilogram of product.

Swimming fishSomething that possibly started out as an art form has become a science.

New Zealand fisheryWith increased use of technology, coupled with a strong social conscience, aquaculture just may be the answer to many of the world’s problems, which it could be argued are largely driven by increasing population and dwindling resources.

As long as mankind uses this tool as a farmer and not the hunter we have descended from, then I see aquaculture playing a very strong role in mankind’s future.

Environment News Science

Has Geo-engineering Moved On?

Last year I wrote a series on this blog about the environment entitled ‘Can We Improve the Health of the Planet?’ Read all of the posts and report on the series here through the Bassetti Foundation website. The posts received a lot of comments, and one of the most commented was a post about geo engineering called ‘Engineering a Solution to Global Warming’.

To summarize the argument we are talking about ways of cooling the planet using technological intervention.

One of the modes put forward and that I addressed in the post is to remove carbon from the atmosphere in an attempt to minimize the problem of global warming due to heat retention.

This week in Nature magazine a short article appeared that described an experiment that according to the researchers that conducted it seems to be the first time large amounts of carbon have been removed from the atmosphere and stored.

In the case in question scientists have used iron sulphate and the ocean. The iron is dropped into the water which causes a chain if events that pulls the carbon from the atmosphere, hopefully for good.

Ocean Fertilization Technique

The iron in powder form stimulates the growth of algae that lives for about 3 to 4 weeks. Their growth relies on carbon from the air, drawn through photosynthesis. When the algae dies or is eaten and excreted it sinks to the bottom taking all of the carbon with it.

One of the scientists involved in the experiments states that a single atom of iron draws 13000 atoms of carbon from the air, a large proportion of which finds its way to the ocean floor.

Many scientists are skeptical however. The amount of carbon removed is quite literally a drop in the ocean compared to that produced, and critics argue that this insignificant result could open the gates for other geo-engineering experiments, some of which (as my previous post outlined) seem rather unwise.