It is absolutely vital that we accelerate the implementation of ocean-originating materials as quickly as possible. Only by lowering the recovery cost and making incorporation into products easier can it become viable for companies to utilize larger amounts.
The problem Clean Currents is attempting to solve is actually three separate problems which are very closely related. The first problem is preventing the pollution humans create from making it to the open ocean, the second is collecting the pollution which has already made it that far, and the third is helping businesses find profitable and useful ways to incorporate the recovered materials.
How Big Is The Problem?
The closest estimate we have for how much plastic, debris, and all other solid pollution that entered our oceans in 2018 is slightly more than 8.3 billion kilograms. Any amount we recover below that is making the problem smaller, but it’s not fixing it. To actually have a positive effect, we need to be recovering more than 8.3 billion kilograms a year. This number is very important to us because it represents the break-even point where we actually start to make a difference.
With the implementation of our solutions, we believe the first year this amount can be recovered is 2025. However, to reach that point, a large network of infrastructure will need to be established across the world’s 15 key pollution points: The Caribbean, Brazil, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, and various Pacific Islands. So far, we have made a great deal of progress in The Caribbean and plan to expand our efforts to Brazil when possible.
Why Have Others Failed?
To date, all attempts to solve the problem of ocean pollution have failed due to one key reason: cost of recovery. The price of bringing 1 kilogram of pollution from water to land is the most critical factor overlooked by cleanup strategies.
The Ocean Cleanup is a perfect example of this problem. The original idea was to place large nets out in the ocean, propelled by waves they would be able to capture the floating portion of ocean pollution (3% of the total) for very little cost. In principle, this is a fantastically innovative idea, but, in practice, the company has taken 5 years and donations totaling $40 million to create their prototype which has faced multiple structural failures, ultimately being towed back to shore for repair.
Not to pick on The Ocean Cleanup, but they have stated that when the machine is working perfectly, it will still only be able to collect 1,000 kilograms a week which would necessitate 160,000 cleanup machines. We don’t believe that they are the answer to this problem, but we appreciate that they’re actually trying.
Because the entire effort of recovering the world’s ocean plastic cannot be funded by donations and government assistance, it would take a century to raise the 100s of billions of dollars needed; a self-sustaining business model must be created.
This is where our strategy begins to take shape. We are working closely with businesses to create a supply chain of ocean plastic products, everything from 3D printer filament to jewelry. We imagine that if a company like ours takes care of the recovery, processing, and shipping of the materials, then companies will be much more receptive to using them.
What Will The Recovered Material Be Used For?
As much of this ocean pollution as possible needs to be given an application. Ensuring each piece recovered is recycled into a useful product achieves two goals at once: firstly, it generates revenue to fund more recovery, and secondly, it decreases the likelihood of the plastic ending up in a landfill or back in the ocean. Ideally, the kinds of products being created will be long-lasting such as furniture or sunglasses. Winter jackets, for example, are often made from polyester, a type of fabric easily created from recovered ocean plastic. These typically have expected lifespans of 10-15 years. The types of products created so far have mainly been expensive and niche like shoes from Adidas or surfboards from DBOA, but we believe this is more of a supply issue rather than one of demand because most of these products are given ample media attention and sell very well.
The chart below shows how pervasive ocean-originating materials can become in a few select industries. Provided these materials are available at cost-competitive prices, these calculations show how many kilograms per year each industry should be expected to utilize. The X axis is logarithmic, so all of the data is properly displayed, and this chart only takes into account one type of ocean pollution, PET plastic, the type single-use bottles are made from. The total weight of all seven industries represented is 9,673,553,933 kilograms/year, 16% above our goal of 8.3B kg/year while still only considering one kind of pollution. The amount of discarded fishing equipment as well as other plastic types like HDPE and PP push this number far higher.
Our initial focus is on producing 3D printer filament; we’ve already had success with converting our recovered materials into it and establishing a strong foothold of 60,000 kilograms a year will allow our recovery effort to grow quickly. In the near future, polyester clothing has the greatest potential impact.
How Can We Compete With Virgin Plastic?
The only real way to incorporate billions of kilograms of this material into profitable industries is to make it insanely cheap. The threshold is when it becomes as cheap as traditional virgin plastic, roughly equal to $0.80/kg. Advanced recovery methods and an efficient supply chain will help make it possible to compete with these low prices.
Because the lion’s share of the material’s price is recovery not processing or shipping, we’re putting our focus toward Guerrilla Recovery, building small, highly-efficient cleanup infrastructure where it’s needed the most. We work with locals and arm them with solutions that make cleanup easier and faster.
The easiest way to recycle ocean plastics is to work with locals; paying them to essentially crowd-source the cleanup effort. Each of these centers can process 9,000 kilograms a month. We sort, process, and transport the material ourselves.
Every day machines similar to snowblowers, scoop up the sand from beaches and vibrate away the sand leaving only the pollution. This solution is only meant for beaches with a high volume of debris which would take too long to pick up by hand. It is operated by a local that brings the materials to one of our collection centers.
Another solution we’re implementing is a thick rubber net placed near the surface of a river or canal, straddling it. It extends 3 feet into the water and catches the majority of floating debris which would otherwise empty into the ocean. This device doesn’t interrupt the flow of the river or trap animals; like the beach sifter it is primarily used for areas of high-concentration such as the photo below. After the net is full, it can easily be raised and emptied into an open shipping container nearby. Once the container is full, it bypasses our collection center and goes straight to a processing facility.
While using boats to collect these materials is the least efficient option, it’s our fail-safe. Often discarded fishing nets can compound and trap other objects forming large floating masses. The only way these can be recovered is by a trawler which brings them to shore for processing.
What Happens After?
Sometime near 2035, most of the pollution that will ever be recovered from our oceans will have been. Every river, beach, and lake will have solutions in place to secure trash and debris. We’re prepared for this; throughout the 2030s we will be able to transition our global network and infrastructure toward traditional recycling and waste management where it can have a long-term positive impact ensuring our oceans are never threatened again.