So we’ve got this trash-filled gyre, right? Can we fix it?

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?


14 Responses to So we’ve got this trash-filled gyre, right? Can we fix it?

  1. Edith says:

    If there is a fungus that can do it, then you can probably engineer something that could do it in water as well. So, yeah.

  2. david says:

    The main concern is the introduction of any bio-engineered organism into the natural environment. We have very little concept of how it may behave or it’s side effects. Hopefully we will do the right amount of due-dilligence.

  3. Anna says:

    Hey Oysters Garter,
    Great blog! Appreciate your looking into the cleanup feasibility….I recently returned from a 4,000 mile research voyage through the gyre, and now “get” why the cleanup idea is so challenging. Its truly massive, and the debris VERY spread out…..Just wrote about it here.
    You all should come up June 1st for the launch of Junk, a raft built of 15,000 plastic bottles, headed for Hawaii….love to have you there!

  4. Thanks for the invite, Anna! Sadly, we will be somewhere over the Midwest that day as we fly back from the East Coast.

  5. Edith says:

    Introduction of bio-engineered organisms is definitely a tricky proposition. I spend a lot of time trying to think of ways to engineer in an “off” switch, but I recognize the limitations of that as well (like what if the organism mutates to escape the “off” switch). My point is, it is a long way from what can be done in the lab to having something that would actually be useful in the real world and I should be careful not to leave the impression that we don’t know that.

  6. Rich Owen says:

    Great to see that the minds are thinking on how to clean up the North Pacific Gyre. It needs to be addressed, soon. We can all agree that it needs to be done. It will take a world of people to clean it up. After all it took a world of people to make the mess. It’s not so important that we know how at this very moment, but to get started. We are forming a non profit to do the cleanup and we could use your time, effort and expertise. What ever it may be.

    I look forward to the journey, this will be one of the greatest undertakings in history.


  7. kai chow says:

    hello i am a 15 year old student at Kihei charter school on Maui. I was reading your blog and decided to do a little research of my own and i think that i have found that plastic eating microbe that you are looking for. Only catch is that the optimal degrading temperature is about 43 degrees. Take a look at the website

  8. JAVIN says:

    A possible means to clean up the mess would be to create solar powered trawlers that would slowly collect the debris. Slow movement could reduce the bycatch of animals. Perhaps the plastic catch could be dragged on deck and melted together, or bound togther with a bailing type mechanism. The system should melt plastic on board and make the bailing material. If it would not pose a leeching problem it coul dbe floated to form a bigger remediation island.

  9. marc daquila says:

    There is no one solution. Everything, even if its not the best idea needs to be started now. Inertia will be broken by action which will promote innovations

  10. TJ says:

    I like the giant barge idea. Even if it eliminates the wildlife in the area, the wildlife can and will grow back, especially if there is a healthy ecosystem to live in.
    It’s sort of like burning a patch of forest to prevent a bigger wildfire later. You damage and destroy some, but it promotes a healthier growth overall.

  11. Mark Smith says:

    One solution may be to install a plasma furnace on a boat and incinerate the plastic. A plasma furnace will burn anything, even concrete, and reduces the material to its constituent elements.
    This type of incinerator vents no waste gases to the atmosphere, but produces its own power and there may even be enough lefover syngas to sell off for energy on the mainland, or to power the boat.
    Plastics are mainly carbon and hydrogen, so the leftover solid waste would be carbon, which could also be on-sold for generating energy or fuelling barbeques etc.

  12. Texas says:


    […]So we’ve got this trash-filled gyre, right? Can we fix it? « The Oyster’s Garter[…]…

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