How to Clean the North Atlantic Garbage Patch?
Part 3: Recycling
Finding Optimal Applications
What is the core of our solution?
The core of our solution relies on vertical integration at the local level. Concentrating the recovery, processing, and business partnerships to nearby areas allows for hyper-efficiency. Transportation costs can be minimized and the speed of implementation can increase rapidly.
Businesses already utilize plastics in their products; we want to make the switch from virgin plastic to ocean plastic as easy as possible. Rather than creating and selling our own products, we’re establishing a network of partners who can incorporate our materials on a much larger scale.
3D printer filament is a perfect example. We currently have the capability to create quality filament, but at the very most, we would only be able to sell a few hundred spools a month. Our strategy is to work with already established filament producers to create their own brands of ocean plastic filament. Instead of 300 spools a month being produced by a single company, 5,000 spools can be produced by the industry as a whole.
In order to begin using ocean plastic, companies need to be ensured a high-quality, low-cost, consistent supply. How we propose to achieve this is by establishing a network of recyclers around the North Atlantic. With their help, we can implement the different recovery methods we’ve outlined. The system of major and minor-sized hubs below demonstrates how large this network will need to become and where our focus will be.
How can the ocean plastic we recover be recycled?
Traditional Recycling Methods (52.99% of the NAGP)
A large portion of what we recover can be recycled in very normal ways, broken down into basic materials and re-used to make other products. Most of the objects able to be traditionally recycled will mainly consist of very large megaplastics, 86% of which are made up of discarded fishing nets. These are typically PE, PP, or PA and can easily be recycled into other useful items like polyester fabric. Testing has shown that although the tensile strength of fishing net fibers does decrease by 20% after spending time in the garbage patch, all other characteristics are unaffected, including the overall durability and strength of the material.
Create A Polymer Mixture (23.28% of the NAGP)
A massive amount of the ocean plastic in the North Atlantic is unidentifiable. After years of degradation by ocean waves, sea salt, and UV radiation, not only does debris break up into microplastics, it becomes impossible to tell which type of plastic it is at all. (Note: Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy does work in identifying plastic polymers, but is not viable at this scale.)
The easiest way to reuse the recovered plastic without being able to sort it is by combining it together into a solid polymer mixture. Most of the plastics present are similar and fuse together well enough under high temperatures (~250°C) to create strong bonds. With this mixture, we plan on creating simple building materials similar to those created through Precious Plastic. We will be using plastic injection molding to create interlocking bricks used for constructing our collection centers and potentially building housing for locals.
Sort and Decide (23.03% of the NAGP)
When dealing with recovered plastic between 10-50 cm in size, we will attempt to traditionally recycle it similarly to the first category above; however, if the plastic cannot be identified then it will be added to the polymer mixture described in the second category.
Discard Entirely (0.69% of the NAGP)
A small percentage of the NAGP is made up of unknown material. When a piece cannot be traditionally recycled or added to the polymer mixture, it will be shipped back to the nearest port for processing.
What products can be created from these materials?
Ensuring that each piece recovered is later 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 like furniture or clothing. Winter jackets, as an example, are often made from polyester, a type of fabric easily created from recovered plastic; these typically have expected lifespans of 10-15 years.
The chart below shows how pervasive ocean plastic can become in a few select industries. Provided these materials are available at cost-competitive prices, these figures show how many kilograms per year each industry could be expected to incorporate.