By, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, cofounder, The 5 Gyres Institute
Stand on any island in the 5 Gyres and you'll see the plastic come to you. First a bottle cap, a cigarette lighter, maybe even a fishing buoy, washing up among millions of tiny fragments of plastic confetti. If you want to get plastic out of the 5 gyres, islands are the natural nets to capture plastic, with no need for ships, no carbon footprint, no damage to marine life in the process, just a steady stream of fuel coming your way. Contrary to popular belief, the gyres do kick it out and the islands catch it.
What's that? Did I say fuel? YES. 8% of a barrel of oil is plastic, 4% is the raw material and 4% the energy required to polymerize the stuff. Polyethylene and polypropylene wash up in heaping piles on the Hawaiian Islands, Bermuda and the Azores in the North Atlantic, Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, St. Helena and Ascencion Island in the S. Atlantic, and dozens more islands in the S. Pacific.
But what can you do with all that plastic? Plasma. We visited Pyrogenesis in Montreal, Canada recently to learn about waste to energy from plastic pollution. "It can burn anything, from circuit boards to fish bones, and certainly all that plastic washed up on beaches," they explained to us. "How about a dead housecat?" I asked. "Sure, I'm sure that would work," he answered with a chuckle. Imagine a device that shreds waste and passes it through a lightening bolt, using the exhaust gasses produced to power engines to run the machine. As long as you can feed it plastic, it produces more power than it needs to run itself. Net positive power, no dioxins or furans produced, less need to import fossil fuels to make energy, less landfill space occupied, and cleaner beaches.
Okay, this works as a viable post-consumer plan. We know the real solutions are source reduction, not treating symptoms. But with estimates of 3-5 million tons of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, there must be a plan to deal with the waste we have, while we turn off the tap.