Enzymes to Eat Ocean Trash

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Enzymes to Eat Ocean Trash

The notorious mass of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean is bigger than we originally thought. It is actually two distinct collections of garbage, collectively known as the Pacific Trash Vortex. In 2018, researchers found that it is 16 times larger than original estimates, at least three times the size of France, or a total of 617,763 square miles. An estimated five trillion pieces of plastic float in the ocean, covering an area so large that environmentalists called on the United Nations to declare the Garbage Patch its own country dubbed “The Trash Isles.” A recent report by the British government warned that the amount of plastic in the ocean could triple by 2050. The problem has prompted some innovative approaches to help clean up the trash. In the fall of 2018, the Dutch nonprofit Ocean Cleanup launched an ambitious effort to collect half of that Garbage Patch within five years, using a fleet of 60 autonomous floating “screens,” or nets that collect debris as small as a centimeter in diameter, and are later retrieved by boats. A floater prevents plastic from flowing over the screen, while a skirt stops debris from escaping underneath. Algorithms pinpoint where to deploy, and real-time telemetry monitors the condition, performance, and trajectory of each screen. The system also relies on the natural ocean currents for energy; the rest of the electronics are solar-powered. In October 2019, Ocean Cleanup announced that the self-contained cleanup system is working. Another effort, the Seabin Project, cleans up oil and trash using floating receptacles with pumps and filtration centers set up in harbors, marinas, and other busy areas. The 5 Gyres Institute invites citizen scientists to contribute data on plastic pollution by offering them yearlong access to $3,000 trawls, or fine-mesh nets that can be used to capture plastic floating on the water’s surface. Even if scientists succeed in cleaning up the marine garbage pile, it will require behavioral change among consumers and businesses to prevent future waste. Otherwise, more plastic will continue to pile up in the world’s oceans.