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Life in the Plasticene

Crowdsourcing data to remove plastic from waterways—and (one day) earn a profit.

  • Wendy Purnell
  • “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.” Mr. McGuire’s career advice to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1967 film The Graduate was spot on. By 2007, the average American was purchasing more than 220 pounds of plastic each year.

    Invented to replace natural occurring substances like ivory and rubber, plastic might once have been seen as a means of relying less on nature for material goods. Now plastic is considered one of the worst offenders among pollutants in waterways. It’s so pervasive that some scientists briefly flirted with the notion of the Plasticene era, imagining future geologists unearthing evidence of an age dominated by the presence of plastics.

    Those who have participated in beach clean-ups are acutely aware of the pervasiveness of plastics. Frustrated by floating plastic debris, a group of surfers, swimmers, and marine conservationists came up with a plan to crowdsource pollution data and identify hot spots. Launched in April, the Global Ocean Alert System geotags floating debris, maps pollution, and helps prioritize clean ups.

    The idea is for plastic recyclers to use the data to determine profitable locations to drop booms in waterways and harvest plastic before it makes its way to sea. With oil prices down, however, recycled plastic can’t compete with new plastic, so we are unlikely to see thousands of booms drop soon.

    But the technology is ready. In Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a floating installation known as Mr. Trash Wheel uses good old-fashioned riverboat technology to scoop up floating debris and drop it on a dumpster barge. Since May 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel has prevented 257,070 plastic bottles and 173,600 plastic bags from reaching the Chesapeake Bay.

    In Guatemala, AGEXPORT collects plastic from landfills and industries and then recycles it at a profit. They group is currently developing a new source in the Lake Amatitlan basin, where two million residents produce 1,800 tons of solid waste per day. In the future, they hope to also harvest debris from the Motagua river delta, stopping plastic before it reaches the Atlantic. So perhaps there is a great future in plastics after all.

    To geotag litter in your local waterway or download the Global Ocean Alert app, visit

    [Full disclosure: Before joining PERC, Wendy Purnell organized beach and harbor clean ups in Nicaragua and was a member of the Global Ocean Alert System’s advisory committee.]

    Written By
    • Wendy Purnell

      Wendy Purnell served as PERC’s director of outreach from 2014 to 2016.

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