GreenTech: Cleaning The Ocean

If you could travel back in time to February of 1973, you might happen upon a copy of Science News in your doctor’s office or the waiting area of your local car dealership. Curious, you might pick it up and flip through the pages, only to have the words “plastic sea” catch your eye… that’s because this is one of the first times that The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was referenced in a print article. Now infamous, that monstrous mound of trash in our ocean has swollen to twice the size of Texas.

Back then, the article said the “patch of garbage” consisted of what they referred to as “manmade objects”, and they referenced counting 53. They noted that they saw these objects over a span of just more than eight hours, and that half of these objects were plastic. At the time, they estimated a total of between 5 and 35 million plastic bottles floating around in the North Pacific. Today, with the garbage patch alone covering mile after mile of ocean, we’ve passed that many times over.

As a quick refresher, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is this massive collection of debris out in the North Pacific Ocean… and we mean massive. But the name is a bit misleading, because it’s actually two distinct collections of debris bounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Because of this, it’s also referred to as the Pacific trash vortex. And it’s only one of the realities of junk cluttering up our oceans.

Sadly, at this point, the mess in the ocean isn’t just something that we can keep having polite discussions over regarding its reality. We’ve talked too much, and done too little… we know that it’s hurting the abilities of the animals we depend on for the health of our ecosystems to feed their young healthy food. Researchers have studied the birds, and even way back in 1997, 98% of chicks sampled had plastic in their stomachs.

The Commercial Side Of Clean

Some have decided that tackling the problem of junk in the ocean is going to require they take a path less traveled. In this case, we’re referring to the B Corp. B Corps are still for-profit companies, but are driving a new vision of what success in business means. That’s because these types of companies are structured to work in direct harmony with the world in which the business will operate. In other words, the company is purpose-driven, all while turning a profit.

This business structure allows that the company create value for shareholders, but then goes further and says that the value a business creates should extend beyond shareholders to the public, business partners, the ecosystem… basically anyone the company will touch. When a company receives a B Corp certification, it’s one of the few certs that is for a company as a whole, rather than just for their product or service. This way, customers know if the company is practicing what it preaches.

There’s a B Corp that’s got a mission involving cleaning up the ocean, they’re called 4ocean, a Public Benefit corporation founded on the belief that business can be a force for good. The certification process includes what’s called an Impact Assessment, which looks at impact on workers, suppliers, community, and environment. Each item that 4ocean sells helps remove one pound of trash from coastlines, rivers, and oceans, and with workers all over the globe, they’re removing millions of pounds of junk from waterways.

It won’t just be companies like 4ocean that help us whittle away our ocean trash problem, it’ll be those as-yet unborn entities that will crop up from our innovations that will help push us over the threshold of success. For instance, scientists have recently detailed a way to turn plastic waste into something quite valuable… a porous form of charcoal that has the potential to be used for carbon capture.

At The University of California, Riverside, they’re spearheading these efforts, and they think we can do more than just carbon capture. This charcoal could help improve soil water retention and aeration of farmlands. And… it could break down into fertilizer naturally. Currently, it can cost more to recycle than to make new products, a solution that innovations like this charcoal could one day fix. See you next week for another installment from the green tech space.