Garbage is everywhere — whether it’s paper in your trashcan, plastic in the ocean, blobs in the sewers, or junk floating out in space.
In this episode of Here’s an Idea, we talk with engineers and scientists who are finding small — and sometimes even fun — ways to take out all the trash.
Listen to the episode below.
- Richard Duke, a research officer at the University of Surrey, is a member of a team known as RemoveDEBRIS — one of the world’s first efforts to clean up the estimated 40,000 pieces of space junk currently orbiting Earth. Read the extended Tech Briefs interview with Richard Duke.
- Did you print out this page? If so, do you feel bad about it? Carl Yee invented a new kind of “Disappearing Ink," so he could print paper without the guilt.
- Have you heard of "fatbergs?" Researcher Asha Srinivasan told Tech Briefs how her team is turning the monstrous masses of fat, oil, and grease that are clogging our sewers into biofuel.
- Finally, we speak with Captain Charles Moore, who first discovered a “plastic soup” in the ocean, known by many now as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Here are some excerpts from our interview with Captain Moore:
When he first saw the “Watery Junkyard” in the Pacific Ocean in 1997:
"It wasn't like an ‘a-ha’ moment, where I saw some big patch of plastic. It was just an inkling that something was amiss, and seeing a piece of plastic here float by and another piece of plastic. I'd think, ‘Well, if I'm seeing this phenomenon on a regular basis, then it's not just a trail of, you know, cookie crumbs for me, leading, like Hansel and Gretel, back to their home. This is a phenomenon of a larger area…’”
How plastic is decreasing the fitness of ocean life, including the most common deep-sea creature, the lanternfish:
"One is by failing to give them nutrition. The other is by poisoning them with the chemicals absorbed to the plastics, and the third way is by inhibiting their daily migration.
These fish, these lanternfish, are accident-prone in the sense of eating plastic, because they're only feeding at night. They're in a big hurry. They dart around, and they grab anything that'll fit in their mouth, and we found up to 83 pieces in a six-inch-long fish, you know.
This is going to be one of the signals of the crash of the marine ecosystem, because of plastic waste.”
How the harm of plastic in the ocean is difficult to prove:
"That's part of the problem, because death goes unnoticed in the ocean. Things that are weak are consumed. We will never really be able to give you a number for what's dying out, how many of them are dying, and what's the harm truly being done. That will require some kind of new techniques that haven't been developed yet, and I'm not sure that we can do that. It's still difficult, you know. We're still working on that. That's why we're starting with [measuring] stress levels.”
Captain Moore, a self-proclaimed “bad-news guy,” says we’ll need more than just a magic bullet to address the problem of plastic in the ocean:
"It's similar to climate change where, for all the bombast about the situation, the situation continues to get worse. It gets worse fast with plastic, even faster in some ways than climate change, because the petroleum industry now is faced with the problem of electrification of transportation, which their major money-maker was fuel.
Now with energy being produced alternatively, plastic has been their salvation. They're pushing for a quadrupling of production of plastics.”
Read Captain Moore’s book: Plastic Ocean.