Cashing in on Pacific trash


POSTED: Monday, August 10, 2009

Environmental activists and recycling companies are joining hands in an attempt to recover Pacific Ocean garbage and make a profit doing so. The ambitious effort was launched with various grants but its future profitability and environmental benefits are realistic. The imaginative prowess of the founders of Project Kaisei should be commended from every corner of the Pacific and from our middle.

The problem of discarded plastic and other junk in the ocean was described three years ago by the Los Angeles Times as part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series about the ocean. The remarkable alliance of activists and corporate recycling companies is credited to Kaisei co-founders Doug Woodring, a former Merrill Lynch financier, and longtime sailor Mary Crowley.

For decades, people have been dumping trash along shores on all sides of the Pacific, much of it originating in California and Japan. Once in the water, wind, whirlpools and ocean currents send it spinning in a clockwise pattern around the Pacific, much of it ultimately coalescing about 1,000 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands.

That, combined with about 1.3 million pounds of fishing nets abandoned along Hawaii's shores and other islands, has placed ocean wildlife at high risk. The Times article told of a 5-year-old, 18-inch-tall albatross chick flopping dead on Midway Atoll, and scientists finding in its stomach various bottle caps, a spray nozzle, part of a comb, a white golf tee and tiny squid beaks in a tangle of fishing line.

“;The missing link is how can you capture the plastic, since it's spread out over such a large area,”; Crowley told Greenwire, the energy and environmental news service. “;The key realization here is that the plastics might have a value, a recycled value, which is a very exciting deal.”;

Indeed, a Kaisei—Japanese for “;ocean planet”;—voyage beginning from San Francisco to chart the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has funding from individual donors and the backing of the Bureau of International Recycling, comprised of 77 companies from Austria, China, Cuba and Canada, among other nations. A second ship from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego will aid the Kaisei over the next month, focusing on science.

Since most of the trash has been reduced to molecular litter, Crowley says the effort will focus on sweeping up trash from the last three or four years.

According to a 2006 United Nations report, every square mile of ocean contains 50,000 pieces of litter, much of it harmful to wildlife. If the Kaisei effort is successful in collecting the recent litter and continues to do so from this time forward, the reduction of harm would continue to diminish. And, as Woodring points out, “;As soon as there's value, it will get collected.”;