Jun 28, 2016 by concept by John C. Mankins. (Illustration: Courtesy Artemis Innovations)

Scientists are making the big push to send electricity to Earthlings from the final frontier.

Anna Bitong FUTURISM


Aboard an imaginary space station surrounded by distant planets, an astronaut on the fringes of human life toiled to turn the sun’s rays into electricity and then zapped it through space and back to the planets to be used as a power source.

“Our beams feed these worlds energy drawn from one of those huge incandescent globes that happens to be near us. We call that globe the Sun,” the spaceman says in one of Isaac Asimov’s earliest works, the 1941 science fiction short story “Reason.”

Biochemist and science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov.
(Photo: Bettmann Archive)

What was then an implausible idea—collecting solar energy in space and sending it to Earth—is now the goal of scientists around the world, marking a new space race that could end reliance on dwindling fossil fuels, fundamentally shift power in the geopolitical conflicts they have sparked, and meet the rising demand for energy from the developing world.

Paul Jaffe, a spacecraft engineer and principal investigator at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., has brought the U.S. closer to that goal with his work on space solar technology, which has drawn international attention—and for good reason: The innovation would have a profound impact on humanity.

“In countries right now where they’re trying to deal with poverty, water scarcity, poor health, lack of education, and political instability—these are all things you need energy in order to fight,” Jaffe told TakePart.

About 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity, and another 1 billion do not have reliable electricity networks needed for powering medical equipment, safely storing blood and vaccines, performing emergency health procedures after dark, and other uses, according to a United Nations Foundation report. Smoke from polluting and inefficient cooking, lighting, and heating devices kills an estimated 4 million people a year and can cause chronic illnesses, the report said. What’s more, energy consumption worldwide is projected to grow by 48 percent between 2012 and 2040, with most of the growth in developing countries, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That could spell a climate change disaster if clean, reliable energy doesn’t reach massive populations in India and China, where energy production has relied on fossil fuels.
Basic concept of solar energy collected and delivered via satellite and microwave technology. (Illustration: Courtesy Artemis Innovations)

“[Solar power satellites] introduce the profound capability to send clean, constant energy nearly anywhere in the world, which would be huge for places that don’t currently have reliable electricity,” Jaffe said. “In Western civilization, we expend an enormous amount of energy per capita, which is not matched in the developing world, and if it does get matched in the developing world, that’s going to represent a huge, huge demand for new energy.


Jaffe estimates it would cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars for a demonstration and billions of dollars for an operational system. But he says that ongoing breakthroughs in technology, some achieved at the Naval Research Lab, can help harness space solar power for use on Earth. Jaffe and other space solar experts believe it can be done within the next decade.

The plan got a major boost at a State Department contest in March, where, in a room of high-ranking government officials, Jaffe proposed solar power satellites that would capture sunlight in space, convert it to microwave energy (a form of electromagnetic radiation), and then wirelessly transmit it to rectennae (antennae that can convert the energy to electricity) on Earth. Backed by recent technological advances and nearly a decade of research, which began in 2007, the proposal beat 500 entries to win four of seven categories: innovation, collaboration, presentation, and—importantly, considering the crowd—the people’s choice award.

“That was a big deal,” said aerospace engineer Feng Hsu, chairman of the National Space Society’s Space Solar Power Committee and former NASA space flight risk expert. “Space solar power really caught the interest of the Pentagon leadership, [as] it can minimize confrontation between nations and solve geopolitical conflicts because energy is a big issue.”

The advances come amid concerns about diminishing coal, oil, and natural gas burned for energy, a practice that produces carbon dioxide emissions blamed for climate change.

“There will come some point where all of the fossil fuels that took millions of years to be stored will be depleted,” Jaffe said, “and at that point, we should have another [energy] source to turn to.”

Lighting Earth

Of course, solar power can be captured without leaving Earth’s surface—as evidenced by an increasing number of homeowners that install solar panels on their roofs as they grow cheaper and improve. But there are advantages in seamlessly transmitting it where it is needed. It’s true that terrestrial solar panels are easier to update than space satellites and are becoming cheaper, Jaffe said. But on Earth, panels can be unusable during long periods of cloudy days and require energy storage—and such batteries are limited, inefficient and expensive.
Paul Jaffe at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Jamie Hartman/U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

Although many solar panels are on the grid, “there is currently no large-scale effective and economical means for storing utility-scale levels of power,” Jaffe said.

A solar power satellite in space would provide continuous power to people on Earth because it would have endless access to sunlight—without interferences from clouds, the atmosphere, or night—and would not need storage, Jaffe said.

“Having continuous power similar to what you have from a coal or a nuclear plant is a big deal,” he said. “The shortcoming of wind and solar is that they are intermittent, leaving the balance of energy needed when they are unavailable to fall on coal, natural gas, nuclear, and other nonrenewable baseload sources. Space solar is clean and constant, allowing it to serve as a baseload source.”

Unlike terrestrial solar power, space solar energy could be transmitted globally and sent on demand to areas struck by natural disasters or to remote military posts, where it’s often difficult and dangerous to bring fuel.

“There’s no other energy source known that could switch from one part of the planet to another part so quickly,” said space entrepreneur and former NASA executive John C. Mankins, whose solar power satellite design, SPS-Alpha, appears in his 2014 book, The Case for Space Solar Power. “It could move the delivery of power in literally a second from San Francisco to Chicago. Next week it could send that same energy to South America.”

Animated demonstration of John Mankins’ SPS-Alpha satellite design. (Video: YouTube)

How would that happen?

All elements of the technology for sending power from space to Earth have been tested in some form, Jaffe said. Communications satellites already send small amounts of sunlight-generated wireless power to the planet every day.

Perched about 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, in an orbit where sunlight is brighter than anywhere on the planet, solar power satellites would zap power to inexpensive mesh-like receivers placed above the ground on 20- to 50-foot poles, leaving the land or water underneath for farming, raising livestock, or other uses, Mankins said.

Could beaming energy from space pose risks?
John C. Mankins. (Photo: Courtesy Artemis Innovations)

“If you did it wrong, the answer is absolutely yes,” said Mankins, noting that sending “wildly unsafe” high-energy lasers instead of microwaves to Earth could cause problems like damage to eye retinas. “If you do it right, it could be safer than wind power.”

“People are often concerned about frying birds with the wireless power transmission,” Jaffe said, “but the system would operate within accepted safety limits by design.”

The energy would stream from thousands of satellites needed to supply power to the world.

“These platforms, once they are developed and deployed, will be eternal,” Mankins said. “They’ll be like islands. They’ll recycle, and they’ll continue for centuries.”

American Innovations

Recent technological breakthroughs are lowering the cost to launch solar power satellites into space, Jaffe said, including the development of more-efficient and lightweight solid-state electronics that reduce the weight of cargo carried to space.

Jaffe built two prototypes that convert sunlight to microwave energy, which would be part of a larger set of solar power systems in space. The “sandwich” module has a photovoltaic panel on one side that receives solar energy, electronic wiring in the middle that converts the energy to a radio frequency, and an antenna on the other side that would send the power to receivers on Earth. The “step” module opens the sandwich to absorb more sunlight without overheating. The modules hold world records for conversion efficiency and specific power, which is the amount of power available per unit of mass it took to produce it.

Jaffe’s ‘sandwich’ module prototype (left) and ‘step’ module prototype are being tested at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. (Photos: Courtesy U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

In other words, the devices are light yet powerful and because of their reduced mass, less expensive to send to space—which is crucial to getting them off the ground.

Jaffe was also the first scientist to test a space solar module in a vacuum chamber that mimics some conditions in space, including extreme cold and concentrated sunlight. (Jaffe did not perform zero-gravity testing, which typically requires an aircraft that provides just short periods without gravity and does not simulate other aspects of space.)

The experiments at the Naval Research Laboratory (where GPS technology was also invented) had far-reaching effects. After results were published between 2012 and 2015, Chinese and Japanese researchers began testing parts of their space solar technology in a similar chamber, Jaffe said.

“Our testing the prototypes in a space-like environment was a really important step,” Jaffe said. “Since that time, other researchers in different parts of the world have started to do that as well, and I think that is a critical step to showing that the technology is closer to readiness for actual use in space.”

Jaffe said his prototypes are “a key element” to many of the space solar concepts being examined. Caltech and Northrop Grumman are among the groups seeking to improve on his results. Last year, the pair formed the Space Solar Power Initiative, which seeks to create an ultralight solar energy collector.

Jaffe’s sandwich module prototype rests in a vacuum chamber, an environment that emulates the conditions of space. (Photo: Courtesy U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

Gary Spirnak, CEO of start-up Solaren in Manhattan Beach, California, said his team of scientists is also developing a lightweight solar power satellite that could be tested in space by 2020.

“You have to make it light enough, and I believe we’ve solved that problem,” he said. “We’re in the process right now of proving it.”

Another advancement may affect the space solar power game: the mass production of spacecraft.

“For the most part, satellites have been these very painstakingly, artisanally crafted devices that take years and lots of labor,” Jaffe said. “Now we’re seeing small and large companies mass-produce spacecraft, and this drives the cost of space hardware down.”

The price of transportation to space is also expected to dip because private aerospace companies Blue Origin and SpaceX have both recovered booster rockets for reuse. In the past, the rockets were discarded after one space flight. The ability to launch, land, and reuse a booster rocket would make it cheaper to send satellite components to space over multiple launches, which may not happen for at least another decade.
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Jaffe began probing the potential of space solar energy after seeing the concept in a 2007 National Security Space Office report. A team at the Naval Research Lab studied the idea and concluded what so many others had. “We definitely found that it was technically feasible, but the question remained the economics,” he said.

Now that the question is being answered, Jaffe has proposed steps over five years to begin development of a solar power system in space, including tests of a wireless power link on the ground and a demonstration of the system on the International Space Station.

If started now, the development phase could be done by 2021 for about $350 million, Jaffe said. It would end with a pilot system, worth about $10 billion, that could power more than 150,000 homes.

“The longer we put off looking into new and potentially revolutionary sources of energy, the harder it will likely become,” Jaffe said. “It’s important to realize that wind and solar have had decades to evolve and hone themselves to the point where they are truly competitive with fossil sources. Space solar hasn’t had that opportunity yet.”

Space Race?

U.S. scientists are not alone in their quest to develop and deploy solar power satellites. Among the countries investigating them are China, which has heavily researched the concept, and Japan. Jaffe called them “the world leaders right now, with sophisticated long-range wireless power transmission” that will enable the satellites to send energy from space to Earth.

Could the nations work together?

Such an alliance has precedence, Jaffe said, citing the International Space Station and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, an energy project in France that seeks to build an experimental nuclear fusion reactor to produce carbon-free energy. It involves the U.S., the European Union, Russia, China, India, South Korea, and Japan—“countries that don’t typically cooperate on anything,” he said.

“One of the reasons that ITER enjoys this broad international collaboration is there’s a recognition that if that technology comes to fruition, it has literally revolutionary effects for human civilization,” said Jaffe, whose own team includes Mankins and members of NASA and the Department of Defense. “Space solar is similar, although it has the added benefit of global distribution.”

As proposed by Jaffe, the International Space Station, seen here on March 25, 2009, will potentially be used to demonstrate the transference of solar energy from space to Earth. (Photo: Getty Images)

Solaren has been working on its own solar power satellite since at least 2009, when it signed an agreement with Pacific Gas and Electric in San Francisco to provide it with energy from space by this year. Spirnak said the date has been postponed as he continues to raise funding. In the meantime, he declined to reveal details of Solaren’s design.

“Most of our competitors are countries, not companies,” Spirnak said. “They have infinite resources, so I don’t want to help them. To us, this is business. It’s a competition. We’re here to make money for our investors.”

The stakes are high. “With space solar power, we’re tapping into literally a multi-trillion-dollar market,” he said.

China, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates might be first to send a solar power satellite to space because of their interest and efforts, Jaffe said, “but we would almost certainly see it coming.” China is reportedly planning to build a solar power station in space, while scientists in Japan conducted a successful wireless power demonstration on the ground last year. Also, the UAE, in an apparent bid to stay in the energy business after oil dries up, is doing a space solar financial analysis, with a “course forward” to be announced this summer, said Jaffe, who participated in a technical assessment of space solar in the UAE with other experts on the subject earlier this year.

Yet Jaffe warned that a “Sputnik moment” could occur, referring to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth.

“When Sputnik was launched, it came as a shock to the U.S. and resulted in a lot of investment being put in science and math education and ultimately led to the moon landing and other endeavors that we achieved in space,” he said. “While of course we could always wait for such a time, there’s a lot of benefit [if] we lead rather than [try] to play catch-up later.”

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(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Can These Inventions Save Oceans From Our Plastic Habit?
As an environmental catastrophe looms, innovators around the world are hoping to turn the tide.

Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.


NEWPORT BEACH, California—As a lifelong surfer, Louis Pazos has had an up-close look at the world’s plastics problem. Just about every time he has paddled out at any of his favorite breaks in Southern California, he has ended up swimming among trash bags and other rubbish.

But the floating garbage isn’t just offshore. Twenty years ago, on a lunch date at a waterfront restaurant with his wife, he noticed that the same debris he was swimming with in the open ocean was floating in the local harbors as well.

“I remember people cleaning up the trash in one spot in the marina, and within five minutes, the wind had blown more trash to the spot they had just cleaned,” Pazos said. “I thought, there’s got to be a better way.”
Marina Trash Skimmer inventor Louis Pazos. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

Inspiration struck where so many Southern Californians spend too much time—the freeway.

“I was stuck in L.A. traffic one day and literally started drawing plans for my trash skimmer in the car,” he said.

Over the next decade, Pazos worked on perfecting what he calls the Marina Trash Skimmer—a floating container that’s fastened to the side of a dock and looks like a Dumpster semi-submerged in water. It’s equipped with a pump that circulates water through its filter system, gently sucking in and trapping debris inside.

The contraption has been a godsend to Newport Harbor, an inlet home to more than 9,000 sailboats, yachts, and fishing vessels in Southern California’s tony Newport Beach community.

Here, floating trash isn’t usually the first thing you’ll notice, but turn your eyes from the waterfront homes (Nicolas Cage sold his for $35 million in 2007) and pleasure craft (John Wayne’s Wild Goose still floats dockside), and the problem plaguing the world’s oceans becomes evident. Bits of floating debris, plastic trash bags, straws, Styrofoam cups, and more are scattered around the harbor.

“It’s trash that we previously just ignored,” Pazos said. “But instead of sinking to the bottom of the ocean or floating far out to sea, we’re able to get it out of the water and stop the environmental damage.”

Since his first test runs in Long Beach Harbor in 2006, Pazos has installed 49 Marina Trash Skimmers in states including Hawaii, California (six in Newport Beach alone), Oregon, and Texas. So far, the contraptions have removed more than 1 million pounds—or 500 tons—of primarily plastic-based debris.

Marina Trash Skimmer. (Photos: Lauren Wade; Louis Pazos)

Pazos’ skimmers are just one of a number of sustainable design solutions aimed at staving off an environmental catastrophe across the world’s oceans.

Other inventors around the globe are exploring big ideas that test the bounds of imagination. These innovations differ in size, scope, price, and feasibility, but what they have in common is a goal of ridding the seas of the vast levels of a substance threatening just about every ocean-dwelling animal—plastic.

Plastic the Terrible

Everything that makes plastic attractive for human use—versatility, durability, and cheap price—is a curse for marine life.
We don’t value plastic, so we throw it away—a majority of it goes to landfills or is recycled. Still, more than 8 million tons of plastic weasel their way into the oceans every year. At sea, plastics degrade slowly and break down into smaller and smaller bits, growing more brittle as they float farther out. Those floating pieces, some 5.25 trillion of them—many smaller than a grain of rice—can be ingested by just about anything alive. Researchers have found albatrosses with stomachs full of bottle caps. An autopsy of a sperm whale stranded off Germany’s coast earlier this year revealed a 43-foot-long plastic fishing net and a plastic car engine cover in the animal’s stomach. Corals at the Great Barrier Reef could be ingesting as many bits of plastic as they are bits of food.

More than 600 species are affected by plastic waste in the ocean, and while we don’t yet know the full impacts of plastic pollution on every animal, we continue to pump out more plastic. Global production has doubled almost every decade since 1950, and we’re now producing more than 300 million tons of the material a year.

“Trying to figure out the full historical amount of plastic we’ve actually put in the ocean since the 1950s is really anyone’s guess,” said Erik van Sebille, a climate scientist and an oceanographer at Imperial College London in London.

Last year, van Sebille combined data from multiple ocean plastic expeditions and studies conducted over the past two decades to create a “global inventory” of plastic debris at sea. Between 50,000 and 250,000 tons are floating in the ocean. The discrepancy exists because there are large swaths of ocean where barely any plastic measurements have been conducted, van Sebille said, but whatever the actual number, “it’s still at most only 1 percent of the total amount of plastic that’s entering the ocean each year.”

Where the rest goes remains a mystery. We know animals are eating it, some of it is sinking to the ocean floor, and some is turning into a veritable plastic soup, but we don’t know how much is going where and what impact it’s having.

What we do know is that a lot of people want to clean it up. The question is, What’s the best innovation for such an enormous task?

How and Where to Start

There’s a long history of ocean cleanup solutions and, some would say, a bright future. Huge ships are heading out to sea picking up millions of tons of plastic debris. The moonshot version of that is a teenager’s vision becoming a reality with the 62-mile-long, multimillion-dollar Ocean Cleanup array, aimed at capturing plastic thousands of miles from shore. Then there are smaller-scale solutions that rely on mariners’ seashore stewardship: a bin made of recycled plastic that could suck up plastic in harbors before it ventures out to sea and even a solar-powered trash wheel wrangling plastic in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

At the heart of the variety of innovations being considered are differing techniques for picking up ocean rubbish—and part of that is because there is still debate on where in the water plastic collecting should target.

The Pacific gyres. (Illustration: Courtesy NOAA)

Globally, there are five ocean gyres where circulating ocean currents accumulate high concentrations of plastic. The most famous of these is the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, swirling between California and Hawaii. The media ran with the “garbage patch” moniker coined by Algalita Marine Research and Education’s Charles Moore in 1999, conjuring up images of a Texas-size island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are almost entirely made up of bits of plastic called microplastics—hard to see and even harder to pick up.

For Marcus Eriksen, a marine scientist and the founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, the closer to the source you can get plastics removed, the better off all living matter is. A five-year study he coauthored found there was sufficient plastic in the five gyres to construct enough two-liter bottles that—if stacked end on end—they could make it to the moon and back, twice.

“But 92 percent of that plastic is tiny, tiny pieces,” Eriksen said. “And we’re kind of stuck here trying to change the perception of what’s out in those patches. It’s not big stuff you can just go clean up.”

Various microplastics found in the pacific gyre system. (Photos: Courtesy The 5Gyres Institute)

Once plastic leaves land, it starts eroding, shredding, and breaking down into smaller and smaller bits the farther offshore it gets.

“When we’re out there in the gyre, we’re not finding straws and bottles—we’re finding tiny pieces that probably were part of a straw at one time,” Eriksen said. “When we’re trawling for plastic, even in the thickest accumulation zones of the Pacific Gyre, our nets only pull up about a half cup of microplastics over a two-mile stretch. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of plastic out there—it’s just very, very small.”

Small-Scale Example of a Large-Scale Issue

In Newport Beach, a microcosm of the ocean pollution problem took place within the confines of the harbor. It started in 1989, when Bill Hamilton, a local waterfront restaurant owner, got sick of looking at all the trash floating around the harbor.

He watched harbor maintenance crews use dip nets—basically pool-cleaning nets—to fish out debris and—like Pazos—he thought there must be a better way. Within a year, he had constructed an 18-foot boat equipped with a conveyor belt.

“The idea was that you’d run over the trash; it would run up the conveyor belt and into a trash can on board that you’d empty later,” said Newport Beach Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller.

Hamilton donated the $50,000 boat, dubbed the SS Trash, in 1992 to the city, which paid to operate it in the harbor.

Don Webb, the city’s public works director at the time, remembers the boat mostly sitting idle on the docks.

Pazos stands with a net and trash bag containing contents from his trash skimmer. (Photo: Lauren Wade)

“It didn’t make much sense, because the debris in our harbor only really gathers in a couple spots, in corners and areas the boat really couldn’t get to,” Webb said. “So unless it was after a big rain and there was debris everywhere, there wasn’t much for the boat to pick up.”

With the SS Trash foundering, Pazos and his Marina Trash Skimmers moved in.

“You put a few of these in strategic places in harbors where trash likes to gather, and you can slowly, steadily clean a large percentage of the floating debris you see,” Pazos said. “And marina managers and harbor operators are starting to take notice.”

The failed efforts of Hamilton’s SS Trash and the promise of Pazos’ skimmers in Newport Harbor could have implications for the cleanup solutions forming around the world’s oceans today.

The Offshore Dream

Three years ago, Dutch engineer Boyan Slat’s teenage dream to clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch was launched.

With The Ocean Cleanup project, Slat—now 21—and his team of 70 scientists, engineers, and communications professionals say they can clean up half the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in a decade. The plan, outlined in a 530-page feasibility report, is extensive.

It includes placing more than 62 miles of floating barriers at sea in the middle of one of the gyres. The booms will “passively corral floating plastics” as wind and ocean currents push them toward a central collection platform that will sort and process the items. Boats will pick up the recovered plastics every six weeks, and the hope is that they can be recycled or used as fuel back on land.
Engineer Boyan Slat. (Photo: Courtesy The Ocean Cleanup)

So far, the project has received $2.2 million in crowdfunding money from more than 38,000 backers, making it the most successful campaign of its kind in history. This month the team plans to install a scaled-down prototype device off the Netherlands coast.

While the project is taking steps forward and has garnered considerable online enthusiasm and hope from conservationists, skeptics have raised concerns.

Aside from the fact that nothing so large has ever been constructed on the open ocean or anchored to the seafloor at such depths (double that of any oil platform in existence), scientists familiar with how the ocean works have raised several issues with the project.

One main concern for wildlife conservationists is that the device could harm the animals it intends to help. By its nature, the debris at sea known as flotsam—no matter the material—can become a haven for floating marine life to glom on to. Algae, clams, sea anemones, and mussels have been found on floating particles, and that wildlife will end up injured or killed during the collection process.

The unknown ecological impact of filtering life from a giant stretch of ocean for 10 years is what worries Jennifer Brandon, a graduate student who researches microplastics at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, about Slat’s contraption.

“They haven’t yet figured out how to get down to small enough plastics to have a real impact on ocean debris, but if they do, they have no way of doing that without the collateral damage of destroying fish eggs, larvae, and plankton that’s attached to it,” Brandon said.

When asked whether ocean gyres were the best places to focus cleanup efforts, The Ocean Cleanup consultant Jan van Ewijk said, “First of all, it is of course necessary to clean up the plastic soup that is currently in the ocean gyres. Secondly, though, it is also imperative that people stop polluting the oceans. Otherwise all the work done by [The Ocean Cleanup] will have been for naught. Ceasing plastic pollution will require a different mind-set by consumers, companies, and governments.”

For now, Slat is trying to get his first prototype to function in the North Sea. He declined to be interviewed.

Eriksen was supportive of Slat’s project until questions regarding structural integrity and marine life impact proved to be unanswerable. The science and engineering has yet to catch up with the scope of Slat’s ideas, yet the push from thousands of online backers who helped turn The Ocean Cleanup into one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns ever has left Eriksen empathetic of Slat’s position.

“It’s like he’s stuck with this idea now, no matter what any scientists say or the feedback they give,” Eriksen said. “He’s got this funding base, and they have high expectations. They’re expecting him to save the ocean with a silver-bullet solution.”

The Nearshore Reality

In addition to his research on the global inventories of ocean plastic, climate scientist van Sebille published a study earlier this year that looked at where in our waterways are the most efficient areas to collect plastic while inflicting the least amount of harm on wildlife.

Van Sebille finds focusing on nearshore cleanup is more efficient than trying to target garbage patches in the middle of the ocean. For projects such as the Ocean Cleanup, focusing efforts on nearshore locations was found to be more efficient in capturing plastic than focusing on open-ocean locations like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In one example, the study found that if plastic collectors were placed near the coasts of China and the Indonesian islands over a 10-year period, they would remove 31 percent of microplastics in the water. If the same collectors were placed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over a 10-year period, only 17 percent of microplastics would be removed.

They haven’t yet figured out how to get down to small enough plastics to have a real impact on ocean debris, but if they do, they have no way of doing that without the collateral damage of destroying fish eggs, larvae, and plankton that’s attached to it.
Jennifer Brandon, micro-plastics researcher at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography

“It makes sense to remove plastics where they first enter the ocean around dense coastal economic and population centers,” van Sebille said. “It also means you can remove the plastics before they have had a chance to do any harm.”

One nearshore solution making waves recently comes from the Seabin Project. A spin-off of Pazos’ Marina Trash Skimmer, the Seabin is an automated trash bin that can attach to marina docks and suck up any floating debris nearby.

The simple design comes from Australians Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski, whose January Indiegogo campaign roped in more than $267,000 in funding.

They’re now on their fifth version of the product, which uses the elements of a pool skimmer: Water flows in from the top and is pump through a filter on the bottom, capturing marine debris, oil, fuel, and even detergent as it moves.

Priced at around $3,300 per unit, Seabins can be placed strategically in harbors wherever trash accumulates, but they must be plugged into a shore-based water pump. Once installed, Ceglinski estimates that each unit could be responsible for removing a half ton of plastic per year.

“We’re able to catch both the big stuff, like plastic bags, and a lot of the microplastics, down to pieces just two millimeters in size,” he said. In the latest iteration, the team has been able to use recycled plastic in the Seabin apparatus, meaning once the products are capturing plastic in marinas, that plastic can, in theory, be turned into more Seabins.

“The ultimate circular economy—catching plastic to make Seabins to catch more plastic,” Ceglinski said.

Other nearshore success stories include Baltimore’s Water Wheel, located where the Jones Falls River flows into the city’s Inner Harbor and eventually to Chesapeake Bay. The trash interceptor was developed by Waterfront Partnership in 2014 and has removed more than 400 tons of garbage from the harbor, including 250,000 plastic bottles, 300,000 Styrofoam cups, 7 million cigarette butts, and 170,000 plastic grocery bags.

Baltimore’s Water Wheel. (Photo: Courtesy Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore)

The $700,000 contraption uses the river’s current to turn its wheel, which slowly rotates a conveyor belt that lifts debris out of the water and into a Dumpster barge (solar panels power the rig when the current is too weak). At peak operation, it can remove 50,000 pounds of trash in one day.

While the wheel is a pricey option, its success led officials from Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, and nearly 30 U.S. cities to ask city officials about Baltimore’s wheel, Waste Dive reported last year.

The Onshore Fix

In terms of both marine debris removal and raising awareness of the plastic pollution problem, not many cleanup efforts can compete with an old-fashioned beach cleanup—especially one as large as the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup Day.

In 2015, more than 800,000 volunteers from countries including Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines, the U.S., and Mexico joined to remove more than 18 million pounds of trash from beaches and inland waterways in a single day.

Since Ocean Conservancy started the cleanups more than 30 years ago, more than 220 million pounds of trash have been collected.

“We know that beach cleanups are not the end solution to our plastics problem,” said Allison Schutes, senior manager for the conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “But it’s hard to argue with that much trash no longer on our beaches, in our waters, and harming marine life.”

Children in Ghana volunteer to clean trash from a beach. (Photo: Tyler Kobla)

While the tonnage figures are impressive, Schutes said the changing perceptions of plastics and marine debris among volunteers in recent years could be just as effective in the long run.

“People aren’t talking about the ‘garbage patch you can walk across’ anymore—they’re talking about ways to stop using plastics altogether, and how to avoid using products with microbeads,” Schutes said. “This is where we get the interest started. If we can get people engaged on the level of how it affects their beaches and oceans, information on changing waste infrastructure and improving recycling might not fall on deaf ears.”

For Marcus Eriksen at 5 Gyres, the progress on managing plastics upstream of oceans has been encouraging. The quick movement by the Obama administration to ban microbeads—microscopic plastic bits used in personal care products—is a sign that policy makers are moving in the right direction.
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Now he’s curious whether the plastic industry will become more heavily recycled or will push toward a “plastics as fuel” model—with technology companies hoping to convert millions of tons of plastic waste into synthetic fuel that can power diesel engine vehicles.

“The linear economic thinking wants to convert plastics to fuel; that way, there remains a need to produce more plastics,” Eriksen said. “Circular economic thinking pushes us into recycling more and more, establishing a zero-waste system where less new plastic has to be produced each year. Right now, the plastic industry relies on a majority of the world’s plastic products to end up in landfills, so they can sustain their growth.”

That push to keep the plastics industry humming along means that by 2050, the volume of plastic trash in the ocean will outweigh all of the fish left in it.

“It’s coming to a head here, with how much plastic we can really sustain,” Eriksen said. “We’re not a limitless planet, and it’s going to come down to corporate responsibility to take ownership of the entire life of the products they create.”

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