Racing to save our oceans image

Some sources claim that the damage pollution has caused to the environment is dangerously close to becoming irreversible; others claim it is already past the point of no return. Due to the fact they contain 96.5% of the planet’s water, our oceans are a vital part of our planetary health. Now, the race is on to find the most innovative solutions to rectify a crisis that has been brewing for several decades.

A gyre is an oceanic vortex of circulating currents; one of the largest is the Great Pacific Gyre. However, you may know it better as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so-named because of the gargantuan mass of debris that has collected in the gyre, and covers approximately 1.6 million square kilometres of aquatic territory – to put things in perspective, it is almost the same size as the US state of Alaska (1.7m km²), and several times larger than the British Isles (315,159 km²).

Cleaning up our act

Environmental change has been a huge topic of discussion in recent years, and is marked by two UN-recognised observance days this month: World Environment Day on 5th June, and World Oceans Day on 8th June.

Oceanic pollution has reached such a critical level that plastic waste is being found in deep seas, in Arctic ice, and ingested by marine life that returns to us on our dinner plates. Habitats such as these are sadly experiencing exponential levels of growth.

Though some estimates attribute portions of the total to natural disasters (the 2011 tsunami affecting Tohoku, Japan is one such factor), the sheer quantity highlights our ongoing attitude towards waste. Sustainable initiatives are receiving increasing levels of attention, but as the global population also increases, can our salvage efforts ever match our levels of consumption?

Prevention is better than cure

The levels of inorganic material waste (predominantly plastic) have developed over the years to become a major problem for our environment. Many environmental experts have made it clear that the most effective solution is to reduce our output of these harmful materials first and foremost. The drive towards this end may take time, as it will likely require economic, social, and entrepreneurial shake-ups, along with the implementation of a number of sustainability policies.

However, some form of waste is inevitable. Therefore, the question becomes what are we wasting, and how we are dealing with it? Our current consumption of single-use plastic could be reduced in favour of a shift towards products that are sustainable and biodegradable.

Where there’s a big problem, there’ll be a big business. Tackling one of Earth’s biggest man-made problems will certainly require a great deal of technical innovation, physical effort, and financial investment. Meanwhile, efforts to promote research, education, and lifestyle changes are gaining traction.

From James Dyson and Boyan Slat, to university research teams, and a growing selection of not-for-profit organisations and crowdfunding initiatives, the world is waking up to the choking volumes of waste (mainly plastic) and searching for a cure.

The Great Pacific Global Rescue Effort

The Ocean Cleanup Project is one of these ambitious marine ventures which aims to tackle the debris caught in the gyres directly. Their ‘System 001’ is designed like a large pocket, and is intended to funnel debris towards a floating platform for collection and recycling. The project would work against the gyre’s current, allowing the waste to flow in for collection.

The internet produces an almost endless variety of designs with a quick search. Many similar proposals feature all shapes and sizes of floating platforms and innovative filtration systems, though many of them do not satisfactorily cater to marine life. Whilst many of these designs are intended for use in deeper bodies of water, some would find use much closer to home.

The inventor of Dyson vacuum cleaners, James Dyson, has proposed ‘M.V. Recyclone’ as a potential solution to clean our rivers and canals. Recognising that much of our plastic waste finds its way to the ocean from these sources, this method may one day utilise the same technology as household vacuum cleaners to prevent these pollutants from ever getting that far. The planned craft would travel upstream dragging a collection net behind, though until a method is found that prevents harm to animal life, the project remains in development.

A similar project to that of Dyson’s is ‘The Baltimore, USA Inner Harbour Water Wheel’ - known more affectionately by locals as ‘Mr. Water Wheel’. This device uses the river’s own current to operate a ramp which lifts and deposits debris into a dumpster barge. Along with quirky characterisation, the sustainably-powered trash interceptor features a slowly-moving conveyor belt strong enough to lift trees out of the tidal water.

One of the more successful projects to date was devised by Australian friends Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski. The Seabin Project is an automated, dock-based marine rubbish bin. Designated a ‘trash skimmer’, it is designed for the calmer waters of marinas or ports. Floating on the surface, it draws water in, collecting floating debris and absorbing oils.

Though a significant proportion of emerging initiatives are dedicated to physical clean-up activity, many of them would be misdirecting their efforts were it not for relevant information coming their way. One of the most important contributions being made involves the systems and technologies that research, track, and monitor the common trails of pollutants – particularly microplastics.

UK-based organisation Ellipsis Environmental use drones and data to measure the impact of material pollution after it leaves the coastline and enters oceans. This initiative attempts to track the pollutants to establish how far they travel, and where they end up. Reportedly, only 1% of our waste remains traceable on the water’s surface.

As environmental concerns are leading to a greater need for effective engineering solutions, this industry can expect to see a real growth in the need for qualified enginerring management graduates. You can find out more about studying a degree in this field by taking a look at Arden University's fully online MSc Engineering Management (CMI)

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