What covers 71% of Planet Earth and produces at least half the oxygen we all breathe? The ocean, of course! It’s also home to extraordinary forms of life, many yet to be seen by humans, and produces a treasure of food and medicine for us. All the more reason to protect our ocean. And let’s give three cheers for these solutions:
Gumming up the microplastics
One big problem for the ocean and for the fish and other creatures that live in it are microplastics. These are microscopically small pieces of plastic that come from all the bags and bottles and toys and other rubbish that people throw away.
It often starts out as much bigger pieces, but the sunshine, waves and salt water break these down into tiny bits. These then get taken in by fish, seabirds, turtles, whales, dolphins and other sea life. And it makes them ill. Cleaning microplastics from the sea is really difficult.
The good news is that microbiologists (that’s scientists who study the tiniest forms of life – not very small scientists!) have found a possible answer – in Nature itself.
Researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University thought about using bacteria – miniscule bugs – which like to stick together with each other. When they do that, we call it biofilm – like the goo that collects on your teeth until you brush them.
How does that work? Well, they mixed some bacteria in water that had microplastics in it. And, sure enough, the bacteria started sticking to the tiny bits of plastic (just like they do to your teeth) and then the bacteria on the plastic started sticking to each other. Like glue.
The result was gummy balls of plastic and bacteria all mixed together that were much easier to fish out of the water. It’s an idea that’s still a long way from being used in real life. But one to watch!
Sea grass cleans our atmosphere
You’ve probably seen stringy green seaweed at the beach. It’s called sea grass. And although it may not look like much, many experts think it could do wonders for the planet.
As part of research organised by the Ocean Conservation Trust, volunteers have been sowing sea grass near Plymouth, on the south coast of England.
They tipped little cloth bags of seeds and seedlings – 18,200 bags in all! – from a little boat that chugged around an area that will start sprouting as a new sea grass “meadow” this summer, 10 metres below the waves.
There are plans to plant more sea grass in other areas – starting to replace huge areas of the seabed around Britain where seagrass has been damaged by boats and pollution.
The new meadows will quickly become home to young fish, shellfish and seahorses, which thrive among the fronds – good news for local fishermen. Some people are also experimenting with harvesting grains of sea grass. You can cook it like rice and it’s very tasty, they say!
But especially good news for all of us is what seagrass does for the atmosphere. Scientists reckon that it soaks up carbon dioxide, the global warming gas, 35 times faster than even our vital tropical rainforests like the Amazon. If we can plant a lot more sea grass, we can help clean our air of the carbon we’ve put in from our cars and machines. Plant away!
Scooping up the garbage patch
Boyan Slat was just 16 and at school in Holland when he became very bothered by all the plastic messing up our seas. When he was 18, he invented a device to start scooping up all the mess in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where plastic from all over the world just floats about.
Nine years later, Boyan has shown that his invention can work. His project The Ocean Cleanup started gathering up plastic in 2019. Last year, the team pulled 235,505 kilograms of plastic trash from the Pacific Ocean and from rivers in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Dominican Republic. They aim for a lot more this year.
What they collect is still a lot less than people are throwing into the sea and rivers. But Boyan hopes to launch a new and improved system, if all goes well, this summer. His target is ambitious – a plastic-free ocean by 2050!
He reckons he could clean half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years and get 90% of plastic out by 2040.
It’s important to act now, Boyan says, because the longer we wait to collect the big bits of plastic, the more it breaks down into microplastics that are much harder to fish out. (Just ask our friends from Hong Kong above!)
Of course, chugging around in ships picking up litter from the ocean would take forever – and burn huge amounts of fuel.
Boyan’s ocean cleaner is much cleverer. It’s like a huge, long fishing net kept afloat by a line of buoys. It just drifts with the wind and currents and naturally gathers in plastic. Then a ship comes along and hauls out the catch.
And there’s another clever part. Who’s paying for cleaning up the ocean? Well, we all can. Boyan’s project recycles the plastic into things for sale. Check out their website if you fancy a pair of sunglasses that support their work!
Boyan also gets support from sponsors, including the English rock band Coldplay, who agreed to fund one of his river rubbish interceptors in March. And just last week, global drinks company Coca-Cola, which has produced a lot of plastic bottles, announced a partnership with Boyan to clean up the ocean.