Before Miriam posted her most excellent explanation of what the North Pacific Trash Gyre really looks like, I had a vision for how to clean it up: A multinational fleet of mighty ships, their prows split wide open to admit the polluted sea water, slurping it up into giant filters to pick up the plastic, and spitting out clean ocean out the back. I can see them trawling back and forth over the ocean until, eventually, some bearded guy in a yellow rain slicker and a sou’wester wipes his brow, turns to his first mate and says, “Ayuh, we finished cleanin’ the watah.” And then Miriam posted, and I learned just how difficult cleaning up a Texas-sized ocean of trash with plastic at multiple depths really would be. Alas.
So how do we fix it? Over at Blogfish, Mark Powell lined up three proposed solutions: more recycling of plastic, ban the worst products, or a massive reorganization of our economy. In the comments, someone proposes plankton trawls, which is pretty close to my vision big ocean filtering boats. Unfortunately, there are serious problems with all of these ideas: banning the worst plastics might reduce the growth of the trash heap, but it won’t exactly clean up the mess itself. Same problem with recycling. I’m still keen on the trawl/ocean sucking barge idea, but there is that pesky problem of bycatch, in that you’d filter out any fish or plankton living in a marine area larger than Texas.
But then I recalled something about microbes that eat oil, when we have massive oil spills. Well, heck, plastic is made of hydrocarbons, right? Maybe there’s something that can eat plastic.
And thus I enter the fabulous world of bioremediation, the notion that we can fix biological problems with other bits of biology, most commonly by using bacteria to turn something toxic or polluting into something non-toxic or non-polluting. Back in 2005, Spanish scientists studied microbes that ate oil after a major spill off the Spanish coast. And recently some University College Dublin scientists evolved a bacteria to eat polystyrene, the main ingredient in styrofoam.
Now there’s companies that specialize in this stuff. A clean-up company called Ecochem claims you can use micorbes to clean up everything from the MTBE added to gasoline to fuel and oil spills that have seeped into the earth. I also found a fungus that eats certain hard-to-recylce plastic resins that get used in particle board and cars. So that seems promising, but I’m not sure fungus will do all that well in the water.
So, I’m afraid my search came up short, which isn’t too surprising, because if there was a plastic-eating microbe out there, we probably would have already set it to work on our landfills, let alone the gyre. Still, I have to think that if bacteria eat oil and styrofoam, then we can’t be too far off from finding one that will help us along with our plastics clean up. In the meantime, maybe those giant trawlers aren’t such a terrible idea?