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11 Crazy Ideas That Just Might Save Our Oceans

Our oceans are in trouble but these out-of-the-box ideas just might help.

Piece of plastic floating in the open ocean which has been opportunistically colonized by some nudibranchs and molluscks as well as providing shelter to a school of tropical fish which are feeding on algae attached to it, Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka.wildestanimal/Getty Images

Oceans in trouble

The world over, our oceans are rapidly acidifying, warming, and losing oxygen. These factors are leading to sea-level rise, loss of biodiversity, and changing weather patterns. The United Nation’s most recent report on the effects of climate change on our oceans is devastating. There’s been a lot of media attention given lately to tech solutions meant to bring salvation—including some that have proved to be in need of a little more work. But there are more possible cures for ocean woes out there; some of them, we hope, will show substance behind the hype. Look at these photos of what the world’s most polluted beaches used to look like for further proof.

AUSTRALIA-ENVIRONMENT-OCEANS-PLASTICSPETER PARKS/Getty Images

The Seabin

Will this floating trash collector, invented by Australian surfers, succeed where Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Project initially failed? Some 860 of the Seabincans are installed at marinas around the world—unlike Boyat’s invention, the Wilson pipe, collecting debris before it hits the open ocean—and they’re apparently on track to capture almost two million pounds of disposable cups and plastic bags, bottles, and utensils. Using a submersible water pump to pull in water (and trash), the device seems to be living up to its promise, perhaps even more so now that its inventors have come up with a filter that catches 2mm-sized microplastics, reports CNET. Make sure you’re not guilty of doing any of these 11 “innocent” things that harm the world’s oceans.

FRED digital renderingvia clearbluesea.org

FRED

In April, a team of engineering students at Univesity of California, San Diego launched FRED into California’s Mission Bay. A “floating robot'” catamaran designed to “eliminate debris” (hence the vessel’s name), this was just a test float for FRED, which uses conveyor belts to pull in bobbing garbage with an aim to help clean up the utter ecological plastics disaster that is the Pacific Garbage Patch, according to the Washington Post. If all goes according to plan, FRED’s inventors hope to fix its bugs and test its clean-up abilities in the San Diego Bay and Tijuana River. Find out how long plastic bottles take to degrade in the world’s oceans.

US-ENVIRONMENT-POLLUTION-SYNTHETICSJOSH EDELSON/Getty Images

The ocean cleanup (again)

When Boyan Slat’s initial attempt to suck up Garbage Patch particles went bust, he went back to the drawing board. In late 2019, his latest prototype finally managed its first “successful collection,” according to the Washington Post, pulling in “enough trash to fill a shipping container.” To set his company apart from all the other contenders out there, Slat intends to have any plastic his machine collects certified as genuine ocean plastic, which he believes he can then sell to manufacturers to turn into high-end recycled products.

View of the Inner Harbor Water Wheel, also known as Mr. Trash Wheel, in Baltimore, MarylandNICHOLAS KAMM/Getty Images

Mr. Trash Wheel

Since it began operating in 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel, a sort of paddleboat-like contraption that collects garbage from the Jones Fall watershed in Baltimore, had collected 14 tons of refuse, according to its website—including 715,000 plastic bags, almost 12 million cigarette butts, 1.2 million foam containers, 1.1 million plastic bottles, 4,600 balls, one keg, one guitar, and one ball python. As a stable, in-place operation, it doesn’t need any power to get around and so is able to run sustainably on a mix of solar and hydropower. You can reduce your carbon footprint by making these tiny changes.

Full Frame Shot Of Plastic BottlesSuparat Malipoom / EyeEm/Getty Images

Turning plastic to oil

What if, instead of having to fish plastic out of the water, we made sure it didn’t get in there in the first place? Curtailing single-use plastics would be the most logical way to go but, since we seem to be a long way from mustering the will to make that happen, a British company called Recycling Technologies has invented a way to break down a variety of plastics into oil. As Bloomberg reports, the RT’s potentially revolutionary machine works on pyrolysis, melting plastic down into a vapor, which can be cooled into fuel dubbed Plaxx, or, alternately, two different kinds of wax. It’s no secret that single-use plastic straws are bad for the ocean, but here are 14 mysteries of the ocean scientists still can’t explain.

Washing machine with laundrypixedeli/Getty Images

Washing machine filter

The miracle soft fleece fabric so many of us know and love is actually a menace to our oceans, shedding microparticles of the recycled plastic its made from with every wash. In fact, a study commissioned by Patagonia, itself a maker of fleece clothing, found that laundering a single fleece jacket releases as many as 250,000 fibers into our waterways; 100,000 fleece jackets release the equivalent of the plastic found in almost 12,000 plastic bags into the ocean every year, Outside reports. Enter PlanetCare’s washing machine filter that can catch microplastics too small for a regular washing machine filter, helping to keep it out of the bellies of marine life. So exactly how many oceans do we have? Here’s what you need to know.

PETase enzymes breaking down plastic, illustrationJUAN GAERTNER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

PETase

The concept of making plastic disappear entirely sounds like downright sorcery. Because it is—we don’t have that ability (yet). But back in 2018, scientists accidentally hit on a way to make almost-impossible to recycle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics reduce back down into their original chemicals, thereby allowing them to be (possibly, and at very long last) turned into something else once they’ve run their course in the original formation. It’s not quite a disappearing act but it’s close.

coralvitavia coralrita.co

Coral Vita

With coral reefs all over the world experiencing mass die-offs, as The New York Times reports, our oceans and all the things that live in them are in greater peril than ever. So the fact that a Bahamanian company has hit on a way to grow coral on “farms” and use it to revitalize existing reefs is good news. Not as good as if we as a world community worked immediately and concertedly to stop the effects of climate change and meet the U.N.’s COP21 Paris Agreement goals—but better than the alternative of no coral reefs left at all. Australia’s Gret Coral Reef is one of the 14 breathtaking places you should aim to visit before it disappears.

wild edible oyster mushroomsjessicahyde/Getty Images

Mycoremediation

We do a terrible job of keeping oil spills from contaminating our oceans. And we do a pretty terrible job of mopping up the sludge once it’s floating on the surface, menacing wildlife for miles, and for years. But as Vice reports, teams of mycologists have been working separately and sometimes in tandem to use mushrooms—or rather, the mycelia that are usually the underground, main part of the fungal organism—to clean up oil spills. Researchers report that these efforts show great promise; will we see more mushroom-related clean-ups in the future? Find out five other crazy ideas that just might save the planet.

 

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Better toilets

One of the greatest positive impacts on the ocean could come from some seriously low technology: toilets. Toilets obviously collect human waste—thereby (in theory) keeping it out of the ocean and away from coral reefs, which is an enormous challenge in many under-resourced countries that also, coincidentally, points out the U.N. Foundation, live adjacent to coral reefs. And the next step: turning that refuse into things like fertilizer, which is often much-needed in these same communities. See what the most populated cities in the world used to look like.

container ship against blue sky with cloudsPaul Taylor/Getty Images

Electric ships

Container ships, which cross our oceans to transport all sorts of consumer goods from port to port, are among the leading causes of global carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Foundation. Due to all the fuel they burn—typically “the heavy, residual oil left over after gasoline, diesel and other light hydrocarbons are extracted from crude oil during the refining process,” The Vancouver Sun reports, adding that it’s vicious, non-evaporating, and extremely toxic to marine life. Needless to say, electric ships could be an enormous boon—to all of us. Read on for 20 tiny everyday changes you can make to help the environment.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.