Three Ways to Reduce the Ocean's Garbage Gyres (And One Way Not To)

You've heard about the ocean's garbage patches, swirling with tiny pieces of plastic. Now there are several organizations and inventors working on cheap, simple ways to reduce ocean garbage — and some of them are already working.

Photo of inner harbor water wheel by Andrew Thaler.

Over at Deep Sea News, Kim Martini has a great list of projects that can help clean up ocean plastic — including simply ways that you can help. One major way you can prevent those garbage gyres from growing is by ceasing to use any product with "microbeads" in it — these include things like soaps, creams, and toothpastes. Check the ingredients. If it contains microbeads, you can be certain that those microbeads wind up in the ocean, mucking up the water and unbalancing the ecosystem. Learn more at Beat the Microbead, an international campaign.

Another project that's incredibly promising is Baltimore Harbor's "inner harbor water wheel," a solar-powered barge that filters plastics and other garbage out of the water. Over at Southern Fried Science, Andrew Thaler has a great description of how it works:

Situated at the mouth of Jones Falls–a major tributary for Baltimore's Inner Harbor–the Water Wheel's water wheel is powered by current (and supplemented by solar panels). The wheel drives a series of rakers that pull floating trash out of the Falls and onto a conveyor belt, where it is deposited in a floating dumpster. A bank of booms span the outlet ensure that all trash will be shepherded towards the Water Wheel. The dumpster barge is independent, and can be swapped out as the dumpster fills. The total operating capacity of the Water Wheel is 25 tons of garbage per day.

Martini mentions that she's also interested in the idea of storm drain nets:

By adding nets to the outlets of storm drains, a lot of plastic can be captured before it potentially gets to the ocean (which is also why Baltimore's water wheel is SO awesome!). But this solution also has its problems, as the nets need to be emptied and maintained.

But now for the bad news. The much-vaunted Ocean Cleanup project, spearheaded by a 19-year-old engineering student who presented his idea at TED, is not yet ready for prime time. Pacific garbage gyre expert and marine biologist Miriam Goldstein reviewed the project's feasibility study, released in June, and Martini writes on Deep Sea News that there are still a lot of problems with it:

The feasibility study still has major technical issues that must be addressed before such as large-scale project is truly functional. The most fundamental problem is that there is an overarching use of average rather than extreme current speeds to estimate operational limits in the design process. This is a faulty assumption on which to base engineering specifications, one which propagates through many of the modeling studies used to assess both the technical and economic feasibility of this project. Another fundamental problem that has not been adequately considered is biofouling – the inevitable growth of marine life on the structure – which will change the hydrodynamics and may add considerable load to the structure. As currently designed, the moored array is under-engineered and likely to fail.

Just because the project has problems right now doesn't mean they can't be worked out. The fact that it has gotten international attention, and serious scientific peer review, bodes well for the Ocean Cleanup plan. Let's hope that they can work out the technical problems soon. In the meantime, head over to Deep Sea News to find out what else you can do to clean up the oceans.