SAN DIEGO — A spring storm had retreated inland during the night, leaving a canopy of unbroken clouds over Mission Bay. About 20 engineering students and others gathered in the morning chill to launch a cockeyed-looking vessel, mechanical guts fully visible, into the still water.
The contraption’s hull, cannibalized from a 16-foot, decades-old catamaran, supported a conveyor belt, motor and array of batteries the size of a picnic cooler. Solar panels were mounted like an awning atop the aluminum frame. Its creators had relied on off-the-shelf materials during construction and christened the result FRED — an endearing acronym for floating robot for eliminating debris.
“We’re just happy that it floats,” joked Justin Ho, a mechanical engineering major at the University of California at San Diego, who took the first turn at remotely steering the prototype around the bay using a modified video-game controller.
Grand, maybe unrealistic, hopes ride on FRED, whose baptism last month was only a first test for the students and a small startup called Clear Blue Sea. Like other emerging ventures around the world, the nonprofit group is trying to help solve one of the planet’s most daunting problems: oceans littered with plastic. By next spring, the Californians hope to deliver a proven design for a 50-foot version of FRED capable of autonomously collecting trash on open bodies of water. They also plan to make their blueprints public to accelerate research.
“We all need to do our part,” said Susan Baer, a former management consultant who abandoned retirement to found Clear Blue Sea four years ago. Otherwise, “this stuff is never going to go away. “
While most efforts remain untested — proverbial drops in the ocean — they reflect the exponential growth in awareness of the damage that plastic is wreaking. Many groups are grassroots endeavors. Sailor Mary Crowley’s Ocean Voyages Institute recruits mariners to tag debris with satellite trackers so it can be easily retrieved later. Three siblings from Indonesia, with hardware-store ingenuity, built a series of wire-mesh screens to filter discarded plastic out of rivers in their homeland before it reaches open waters.
Yet the accelerating search for global remedies is not limited to just cleaning up the mess in waterways. Scientists have identified bacteria, worms and caterpillars that can digest plastic and might be used as alternatives to recycling, burning or burying it.
By the end of this year, Marriott International has promised to eliminate single-use plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner in most of its 7,000 hotels. Hyatt Hotels said it will do the same at 900 properties by mid-2021.
And some plastic-heavy industries are trying to become solution leaders. Dell has pledged to source all of its packaging and half of its product material from recycled or renewable materials by 2030. The computer company is part of NextWave Plastics, a consortium of tech and consumer brands incorporating plastic waste into their supply chains to make not only laptops but handbags and running shoes. They’ve committed to diverting at least 25,000 metric tons of plastic — the equivalent of 1.2 billion plastic water bottles — from entering the ocean by the end of 2025.
“The plastic issue is a sustainability issue,” said Holmes Rolston, a philosopher at Colorado State University and a leading expert in environmental ethics. “We cannot sustain the dumping of trillions of bits of plastic into the ocean. It is more of a moral issue now, more than it ever was, which makes it a lot like global warming. We became responsible when we realized what was going on. “
The world takes notice
If these actions were born through any single event, it might be the day in August 2015 when a team of Texas researchers encountered an injured turtle off Costa Rica. A plastic straw was stuck in its nostril and had to be extracted with pliers. The video the researchers took as they did so went viral and is largely credited for a widespread vilification of plastic straws. Stores and cities started to impose bans.
Reports and images of suffering animals continue to flood the internet, many showing dead seabirds, manta rays and whales with stomachs full of plastic. A famous photo posted to Instagram in 2017 showed a sea horse off Indonesia clutching a plastic swab in its tail.
The most notorious symbol of the ocean plastic pandemic, and the specific inspiration for FRED, swirls halfway between California and Hawaii. Dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the vortex is popularly described as twice as big as Texas. The size estimate is a bit misleading since the patch does not have a clear boundary and exists in the north Pacific as well as to the south.
“People can argue about climate change and say it is part of a natural cycle,” said oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko of the University of Hawaii, who has studied how debris interacts with currents and marine life. “But no one can deny plastic is a change we produced. “
Exactly how much lies in our oceans is unknown. Available data suggest that about 300 million tons have entered the water since plastic went into mass production in the late 1940s, Maximenko said. (That’s comparable to more than 2 million blue whales, the largest animal ever known to have lived.) Every year, the worldwide total increases by about 8 to 10 million tons, with as much as 250,000 tons being microplastics that are smaller than a quarter-inch — the width of a pencil eraser.
A study led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego found that plastic is part of our fossil record, deposited in ocean floor sediment for the past 70 years. Nanoplastics, the smallest plastic particles, can be conveyed in water vapor and have been found in Antarctic ice as well as in rain high atop the Andes. They also have been found in seafood we eat, our beer and drinking water — even in our feces. Microscopic bits of plastic are indeed inside of us. Living in an age of plastic, we have become plastic.
“There is very little doubt these particles are in our food and water supply at this point,” said Phoebe Stapleton, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers University who studies their still-unknown effects on human physiology.
Looking to lasting solutions
Many scientists and activists consider mitigation efforts to be among the least effective ways of attacking the problem. Dianna Cohen is chief executive of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global nonprofit organization linking individuals, organizations, policymakers and companies. She says a lasting solution will require producers, not consumers, to shoulder the responsibility and cost of managing plastic waste. That should go well beyond the cost of producing plastic, which is made from petroleum, and should factor in its afterlife and its environmental impact, Cohen says.
Beach cleanups, antipollution campaigns and recycling programs are part of what she calls “greenwashing” — a distraction and ultimately doomed to fail. In fact, because making virgin plastic is still so inexpensive, the commercial value of recycled plastic is so low that it has become worth far less than the cost of doing business.
“Recycling is not part of the solution of ocean trash. It’s part of the problem,” said Andrew McAfee, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert in environmental economics.
No single solution exists. There is disagreement about how best to clean the ocean and even whether the benefits are worth the enormous expense and carbon footprint.
The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch organization led by inventor Boyan Slat, is attempting to design and deploy a system of nets and booms in the Pacific to passively gather debris in the patch. Its own research, announced this month, suggested that 90 percent of ocean plastic resides within five meters of the water surface, degrading over time into the microplastic that sinks to lower depths.
The group completed its first successful collection in late 2019 after a year of testing about 1,100 miles from the California coast and brought the trash, enough to fill a shipping container, to port in Vancouver on a gusty, rain-soaked day. Ocean Cleanup intends to certify the material as genuine ocean plastic and turn it into high-end products — an exotic backstory aimed at commanding a markup to fund future expeditions.
“We realized it was not just about the physical quality of the material, but it’s about the emotional quality,” said Slat, whose TED talks became a viral sensation and drew wealthy investors to his cause. “If the patch was made of aluminum, we would not have to get creative. “
By December, the organization had also built and positioned the “Interceptor.” The stationary barge diverts and traps the main source of ocean pollution: urban garbage floating down rivers. Two have already been used in Indonesia and Malaysia; two others will be put to work in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic.
Like FRED, the sleek, bullet-shaped Interceptor uses conveyor belts to draw waste into onboard bins. Its development began under wraps in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in 2015, about a year before Baer started Clear Blue Sea in San Diego with far more modest resources. For her, skepticism was as big a head wind as funding.
“The response was … it’s too big to clean up,” Baer recalled recently. Her team moved ahead on a budget that slowly grew to $230,000. In garage-band fashion, they worked in a small industrial park warehouse near the Miramar neighborhood’s military air base. Help was enlisted by word of mouth. The beer brewery next door proved a good place for recruitment.
Almost 100 unpaid interns from UC San Diego and other local colleges have contributed their time. No employee draws a salary, although next year the company hopes to have 10 paid staff and raise $2 million in funding. Its next testing sites might be San Diego Bay and the heavily polluted Tijuana River.
“We always feel like we’re behind schedule,” said Tim Perry, a professional engineer in his 30s who led the hourlong testing that morning on Mission Bay.
He and the others kept FRED within 100 feet of the boat ramp. And they offered easy targets for its first foray, tossing table-tennis balls, Styrofoam tubes and painted water bottles into the water. Moving like a clumsy toddler, FRED struggled to capture its quarry. Most stuff got away, in part because the vessel unexpectedly created its own eddies that scattered items just before they could reach the conveyor belt. The human minders, both kayaking and swimming, collected as much by hand as their creation did.
On shore, the team mentally counted bugs and concocted fixes. Stiffen the boom arms that funnel debris. Reduce hydrodynamic drag by adding mesh or tines. Add buoyancy. The next version will have to be stouter, more efficient and sit higher above the waterline. Its solar panels will need to power propulsion, steering, electronics and mechanical systems with no backup power source.
What had begun with a mood of ceremonial thrill — everyone wearing a bright aqua T-shirt — ended swiftly. FRED was pulled up the boat ramp, strapped onto a trailer and towed back to the warehouse, its future life at sea still far on the horizon.