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Planet’s ocean-plastics problem detailed in 60-year data set (nature.com)
171 points by sunraa 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments



It would be interesting to run it against a data set with percentage of consumer packages in plastic wrapping.

csv data set of plastic production https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution


Funny thing is that this whole packaging problem could be much improved with some regulation. You could force brands to put their products in large receptacles in the grocery store which would take the place of outer packaging from which you would remove them to buy them... the products you would buy would have a minimal amount of packaging. You could also regulate a certain set of standardized containers made of glass to contain items with easily removable stickers that could easily be cycled through the system.

I would love to see some artist take this up as a project and create an art display with this sort of imagined reality of what things could look like in a modern store with a bit of regulation pushing business to make packaging reusable.


"Fishing gear was the biggest culprit — involved in 55% of all entanglements."

Is anything being done to address the fishing gear issue?


On a tangent, there's a lot of overfishing leading to depletion.

Sooner or later, countries need to start banning big wild fishing.

Another reason to ban is that it's hard to monitor catching practices. Some catching practices wipe out whole ecosystems in one sweep, including taking endangered fishes, seals, etc. The boats will know they will get in trouble for keeping it and will throw them back in water, but not all of them will be alive.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2017-12-22/global-fish-sto...

On a side note: I wish the Australian government will have the balls to stop Japanese military from escorting Japanese whalers in Australian waters: https://www.news.com.au/world/japanese-navy-sent-to-assist-w... Australia gets no royalty from whales hunted within its waters by Japanese government!


If its outside Australia's EEZ there is nothing they can do legally. An illegal military confrontation is the last thing anyone needs. The whole South China Sea issue is over this right to navigate freely outside a EEZ (and that man made islands don't count towards an EEZ)


Well, that sucks.

Surely there's oil rigs, etc outside of EEZ, does that mean anyone can set it up without approvals?


Those are governed by international agreements and treaties, but if the Continental Shelf extends further than 200 NM (the EEZ) then states still have rights up to 350 NM for mineral and hydrocarbon extraction.

I am not sure what happens further out than 350 NM but I am sure there is some UN agreement on that too. Not sure if any drilling takes place more than 350 NM.


Eating less fish is something we could all start to do immediately.


Correct. Fishing gear amounts for the largest portion of plastic by volume in the oceans. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/great-pacific-ga...


Replacing the commercial wild-caught fish with the more expensive farm-raised fish will bring the most roi if you enjoy fish.


OTOH farm raised fish are often quite detrimental to the environment in other ways - unless it's a sealed system (which is only practical for smaller fish), they add massive amounts of nutrients and pollution to the local environment. Also, many farmed fish are fed smaller fish, which are caught wild, and require some 3kg+ of feed fish to produce 1kg of farmed fish.


This is a problem with pretty much every type of factory farming. Food can be cheaply imported from any country around the world but the animals still produce feces locally. The factory farm owners do not own any land to use this natural fertilizer on. Therefore it is either stored in lagoons or in case of aquafarms just sinks to the bottom of the water until years later it becomes impossible to farm fish anymore because of excessive algae blooms.


Fish farms are future superfund sites.


Farm-raised fish are often treated with antibiotics, which means you have less plastic pollution but more antibiotics-overuse problems.


farm-raised fish cause plenty of havoc in the ocean.


They could be on land: http://www.uarahfisheries.com.au/


Interesting - I wonder what's responsible for seemingly large variance in the data set between 2005 and 2008, or if it's just an anomaly.

More importantly, hopefully this data can be used to increase pressure on governments to strengthen regulations against single-use plastic items.


From the original work (linked at the end of the article)

"CPR that has been towed within the North Atlantic and adjacent seas. 36% of the total number of CPR tows between 1957 and 2016 (16,725 tows) had faults logged, 4% of these faults were due to plastic entanglement and 1% were due to natural entanglement "

They only had a total of 208 cases of their devices getting entangled out of those 16,725 tows of which 52 were discarded because they did not involve plastics. Then they did a normalization across each year. I think the large variance is probably due to the small absolute numbers of total incidence and the exaggerated scale that they chose (0-5%).


I mean 0-5% starting at 0 isn't a terrible scale.


It's not terrible and it's clearly labeled which is great. It's just that the total numbers are small and small numbers give rise to the appearance of large variance simply by virtue of being small. It's a data set issue and one to be aware of because in other cases it is one that can be used to misrepresent data trends.


Any idea if this is a free and open data set? I'd love to get my hands on it.



I ended up making a visualization for the second source just for fun. https://public.tableau.com/shared/X9CQJ7QKK?:display_count=y...

It's a path visualization from the starting and ending coordinates with classification of the entanglement recorded.

The second data source was just natural entanglements that occurred, not the plastic ones... kicking myself for not starting with the first data source. I'll probably end up doing the same thing for plastics.


If you go to the bottom of the linked article to the source reference and click article it takes you to the original work. The data sources are linked at the end of that work.


I've got a plan based on self-replicating swarm robots. The basic idea is to collect oceanic trash and recycle it into more robots (to collect more trash to make more robots, &c.) The geometric increase should allow for a (relatively) small "kernel" to grow to handle the global problem.

Two primary recycling technologies seem promising: Thermal Depolymerization and Molten Salt Oxidation.

I've acquired two boats, one to serve as a base and the other to get to/from it, and I hope to begin collecting trash (in SF bay to start) this summer. :-) Fingers crossed...


Forgive me if I find it extremely hard to believe. We can't even build self-replicating robots inside a clean room laboratory. Actually, forget self-replication, I'll be impressed if someone builds a machine (sitting in a factory with external power) that takes plastic waste and spews usable plastic material, and is entirely made of plastic.


Although I'm happy you are actually doing /something/ about it, and the limited information in this comment seems like the project may have flaws. A robot needs more material than just recycled plastic (glass/metals? power source? processing? fasteners/glue/resin to stick it all together? Plastic-collection device?). Undoubtedly, there will be an addition of material to the ocean system. Will the all-in cost of adding the additional material offset the all-in cost of the amount of plastic reduction? What damage can these devices do when they malfunction? What environmental harm can happen when they break?

Is this even a good approach? What part of the problem does this tackle? It seems like the main problem is "How do we get the most plastic out of the ocean possible". The "Many Robots" idea seems to identify the least difficult of the problems, which is "What do we do with the material once it is collected". Indeed, I suspect 1,000 super durable metal robots made on land that have sufficient technology would be superior to 10,000 'recycled' bots. Indeed, 1 gargantuan vehicle cruising the ocean and pumping out giant plastic floating cubes would be even more efficient.

Then again, if you've made a robot that can collect micro plastics from the ocean and reproduce itself well enough such that its prodigy can do the same, then you've already won.


I wonder if we can engineer a fish that posses plastic eating enzymes in it's gut.


> A robot needs more material than just recycled plastic (glass/metals? power source? processing? fasteners/glue/resin to stick it all together? Plastic-collection device?).

The bulk of the robots will be very simple bio-mimetic structures made out of bubbles of plastic attached to each other with glue (in situ production of a suitable marine glue from e.g. algae is one very big open question for the project. Although I can make do with filaments and knots.) Actuators will be mostly simple pneumatic/hydraulic systems. Peristalsis. Power will mostly be passive scavenged from the environment. MSO is an exothermic reaction. Think of giant artificial hydras lining a vast floating spiral "digestive system" that concentrates plastic at the processing center at the, er, center, while rejecting fish and other biota.

> Undoubtedly, there will be an addition of material to the ocean system.

Yeah, the limiting factor will likely be small robust electronics packages. Still, not every drone has to have the full complement of sensors and processors. It's not impossible that a simple "clockwork" brain will suffice for the bulk of the drones.

> Will the all-in cost of adding the additional material offset the all-in cost of the amount of plastic reduction?

I figure so, because I'll be only adding at much matter as needed to make the trash "smart". And the ratio of stuff removed to stuff added should be 10,000-to-1 or better. One ATMega microcontroller can provide brains for several tons of plastic.

> What damage can these devices do when they malfunction? What environmental harm can happen when they break?

Very good questions. So far I'm designing them to be no more of a problem than the trash itself. I expect to be able to have a boat pass through and neither it nor the swarm should even notice each other, FWIW. Also, the robots themselves will be recycled once they have passed the inflection point.

The main issue was how to maintain control, and I think I've got that figured out. I had to design a system that lets me specify my hardware and software from the gates up to be provably correct. Now that I have that the actual OS and robot guidance system is pretty straightforward. It helps that things like ML have come a long way since I started. A lot of problems I anticipated have already been solved in the the meantime.

> Is this even a good approach? What part of the problem does this tackle?

When I first heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch I was horrified, but then I looked at it from the POV of Permaculture, wherein you see this sort of thing as a resource, rather than a problem. As a resource, the plastic waste represents a huge trove of carbon atoms, they are just in the wrong place. (They also aren't bio-compatible, but that's a whole 'nother story.) Using TPD or MSO the trash becomes a resource.

> It seems like the main problem is "How do we get the most plastic out of the ocean possible". The "Many Robots" idea seems to identify the least difficult of the problems, which is "What do we do with the material once it is collected".

The swarm is designed for the collection phase.

The recycling into more robots is just to let a small initial system scale to handle a global problem in a reasonable amount of time.

> Indeed, I suspect 1,000 super durable metal robots made on land that have sufficient technology would be superior to 10,000 'recycled' bots. Indeed, 1 gargantuan vehicle cruising the ocean and pumping out giant plastic floating cubes would be even more efficient.

Efficiency is less important that it might seem, because there are plentiful ambient energy differentials on the ocean. The issue is range and detail: you have to reach most of the oceans down to the molecular level to really clean this mess up. I'm not good at enlisting the aid of others so in order to tackle this problem I had to design a system that scales with relatively little human inputs. I can't build a "gargantuan vehicle" directly but I can build a small system that can replicate itself (with a little help) and scale that up. Eventually I will have gargantuan vehicles.

> Then again, if you've made a robot that can collect micro plastics from the ocean and reproduce itself well enough such that its prodigy can do the same, then you've already won.

Riiiiiiight? ;-)


Thank you for your response! As a Shark(tank investor), I would say "I'm Out, but truly, good luck on your endeavor!" :)


Alien archaeologists will one day find this post and finally understand why the Earth is completely covered in a blanket of robots.


Have you considered getting in involved with the Ocean Cleanup Project[0]? They aren't working on self-replicating swarm robots but they are working on collecting the trash with huge interconnected nets. It's probably a good starting point, since building anything sea-worthy is already a huge challenge.

[0]: https://www.theoceancleanup.com


Nice bait. Unless by "self-replicating robots" you mean plastic-eating bacteria.


I think plastic-eating bacteria being released in the wild would be a benefit if it was isolated to only target plastic... even if we lost the ability to use plastic as a material due to this stuff floating around I think it'd be a net benefit... but whenever anyone starts talking about specialized bacteria I get the willies - that's messing with dangerous stuff that could result in an existential threat.


Nah, if plastic-eating bacteria were released to the wild, it'll be something between a huge annoyance and a civilization-ending disaster. Plastic is a wonder material, and while we definitely don't give it its due respect, it plays crucial role in places like hygiene and energy efficiency. Imagine if you suddenly had to worry about all the plastic things around you rusting.

Also yes, engineered bacteria and viruses are dangerous stuff, but that's the closest we have to a self-replicating robots today. I don't know what else the OP could have meant, besides making a joke. That said, if we change "self-replicating" to "cheap and mass-produced from recycled material", then the whole thing starts to make more sense.


I feel like "self replicating robots" might be too complex a solution, it might be easier to start investigating enzymes to make the plastic present more plasto-philic to condense the micro-particles and even just "smallish" particles into larger particles - if you could make sure the resultant blob was low enough density to float it might be even better - basically you're removing the issue of trying to sift through water to find the particulate and replacing it with going out in a boat and picking up a few basket balls of conglomerate.


Assume you’re simply melting plastic into more boats, not the instruments on the boats?


Disappointed to see you getting downvoted regardless of the efficacy of your concept. Haters gon’ hate. I hope you won’t let it deter you.


Thanks, but have no fear. I'm a nerd, I learned to ignore haters ages ago.


Interesting. Got a project page where I can read more?


Nothing current I'm afraid. There's an old summary page: http://phoenixbureau.github.io/ReGPGP/ which links to some old software and a blog.

I tend to get side-tracked a lot but I'm making (slow, very slow) progress.


you have a plan and some promising technologies and 2 boats and a hope.

that's nothing.

FYI, the self-replicating robots is kinda the hard part.


Whats your plan for providing locomotion to the robots?


Sails for the most part. However, they can be made self-propelling (at about 0.5 to 1.5 knots) by giving them imitation whale-fluke-shaped tails. There will also be specialist "tugboat" drones for when ambient locomotion is insufficient.




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