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Ships that turn plastic waste into green fuel may be the only way to save oceans from country-sized garbage patches. A new venture believes it’s invented one

May 17, 2022, 1:00 PM UTC

Scientists first began to raise the alarm about gigantic patches of floating plastic debris collecting in the world’s waterways in the 1970s and ‘80s.

As the amount of plastic we dump into the sea has multiplied in the decades since, these swirls of junk—vast islands of unwanted toothbrushes, tiny plastic pellets known as nurdles, discarded fishing nets, Styrofoam pieces and the like—have grown with cancerous abandon. One comprised of 87,000 metric tons of plastic in the North Pacific now dwarfs the landmass of Alaska.

It’s not just an eyesore. It’s a huge threat to marine life, the global sea-based economy and the atmosphere—basically, everything. In a grim report released on the eve of the COP-26 climate summit last autumn, the United Nations Environment Programme forecasted that, if left unaddressed, the volume of ocean trash will triple in size by 2040, inflicting $100 billion in damages on businesses and consumers in the process.

So far, ventures launched to take a bit out of these great garbage patches have barely made a dent. One of the most successful ever was a 2020 mission operated by the Ocean Voyages Institute that brought 103 tons of marine debris to land after 48 days at sea. A hundred tons per mission may sound like a lot, but at such a pace, it would take more than 50 years to eliminate the gyres, or vast floating debris masses, experts say.

Now, however, a new venture says it has found a way to square the mismatch between the colossal size of the garbage patch and the undersized efforts trying to address it.

Staying power

“The challenge” for effective maritime clean-up efforts, says Gianni Valenti, “is to stay out at sea.” 

Valenti is president of Gaia First, a Paris-based environmental protection NGO that plans to do just that. They’re working with a Norwegian shipbuilder, Breeze Ship Design, and RINA, the Italian marine certification and engineering specialist, to develop a vessel that can remain out at sea perpetually, working round the clock to collect the trash and put it to good use.

It’s not a giant garbage container they’re working on. Rather, the boat would gather and then convert the ocean trash into a renewable fuel—either in the form of green hydrogen or green ammonia. In the current design, the vessel would have all the technology onboard to treat the waste, turn it into a gas and safely store it——all while at sea. Onboard automated processes and sophisticated sensors would sort the plastics and prepare the haul for gasification and eventual storage. In keeping with the principles of circular design, the boat would be powered by the green fuel it produces onboard.

“Through this boat project, we will eliminate 25 tons of plastic every day,” Valenti calculates. “Every day.”

The big catch

The catch: the technologies core to the project—waste treatment, plastics-to-fuel conversion, gasification-and-storage—work well on terra firma, but there’s very little written in the latest engineering journals on how these industrial processes may perform on the high seas, linked up together into a single waste-to-fuel process. Most of the technology will have to be retrofitted from what works on land, and, adding a further complication, then pass rigid certification processes from various regulators.

This rendering shows how the Gaia First vessel would corral the floating swirls of plastic trash in the ocean. It would then treat it on board and turn it into a green fuel.
Courtesy of Gaia First

That tall challenge was what attracted RINA to the project in the first place. “It’s an amazing idea,” Guido Chiappa, executive vice president at the 161-year-old firm, told Fortune at the group’s R&D facility outside Rome. “But to put it into practice, you have to overcome some barriers.”

Chief among them: Will it work under extreme conditions?

“On a boat, on the sea, you have wind and waves. It’s a very aggressive environment. The level of complexity in order to operate a [waste-to-fuel] process as good as the kind needed for Gaia First,” he continued, “is not as simple as what you’d find onshore.”

RINA engineers have been building computer simulation models to determine the feasibility. His verdict: the technology exists to pull this off. “We just have to build the ecosystem,” he says.

And the cost of that ecosystem? Gaia First is in an advanced stage of fund-raising as it seeks €750,000 in startup capital to pay for the sophisticated boat and launch the project. Valenti believes Gaia First will lock up the needed investment in the coming months and push for the maiden voyage in 2024.

Targeting the cruise ship industry

Chiappa sees the Gaia First project as one that addresses a number of the maritime world’s most vexing issues: not just protecting waterways from environmental degradation, but developing a certifiable on-board waste-management systems for the high seas.

The world’s shipping and cruise industries have long been searching for ways to deal with the waste they produce onboard. Local authorities and environmentalists—most notably, Friends of the Earth and its crusade against cruise ship pollution—are demanding they clean up their act. In 2019, cruise ship operator Carnival Corp. admitted to dumping plastic waste into the ocean, and agreed to pay a criminal penalty of $20 million (on top of earlier fines for the same offenses that came to $40 million).

Chiappa and Valenti believe these kinds of incidents will continue unless the boats themselves are equipped to treat waste at seas, and ultimately stop contributing to the ever-expanding garbage patches. They see the technology that Gaia First is developing as an important first step to addressing this issue.

“Consider that on a cruise ship, they are required to deliver waste to a treatment facility, and then hope that gets managed cleanly onshore,” Chiappa says. It’s a highly inefficient system. “We think a new scheme is needed out in the ocean to be able to treat plastics to reduce the impact of plastics pollution.”

“In the meantime,” he continues, “if you can use the plastic waste to recover it as an energy source, it becomes a fully sustainable process. That is something useful. And completely new. And that is why we said yes to the project.”

Each week, Fortune covers the world of innovation in Breakthrough. You can read previous Breakthrough columns here.

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