The Case for Upcycling the Gyres


Published Sep 11, 2017 11:52 AM by Jos Luis Guti rrez-Garca

Since large-scale production began in the early 1950s, the industry has made more than 8.2 billion metric tons (18.2 trillion pounds) of plastics; and we've put most of it in the trash. 

In 2015, the world created 448 million tons of plastic, and a study estimated that somewhere between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of our plastic waste enters the oceans from land each year.

In July 2017, Charles Moore, the founder of Algalita Marine Research and Education, confirmed the existence of a massive "garbage patch" in the South Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Chile and Peru estimating its surface area to be larger than the entire country of Mexico. 

Upcycle the Gyres Society (UpGyres), based in Vancouver Canada, is a front-liner in the campaign for clean and healthy oceans. We work under the premise that waste plastic in the oceans is an extractable reserve. 

UpGyres considers “garbage patch,” “plastic soup,” and “plastic smog” all descriptive of deposits of human-occurring solid material from which a valuable plastic material can be profitably recovered.

At UpGyres, we are creating the new industry of Regenerative Marine Plastic Recovery for Re-Utilization. UpGyres will incorporate the harvesting and upcycling of marine plastic resources into the blue-circular economy as self-sustaining, profitable, and with positive environmental impact.  

Because plastic comes from oil, processing technology already exists to transform these oceanic plastic deposits through pyrolysis back into oil and into low sulfur fuel for energy and transportation. Another technology already exists to chemically recycle ocean plastics into raw materials for manufacturing virgin plastics. Today’s optical sorting machines, chemical markers and Near-Infrared (NIR) sorting can identify with very high accuracy the many different polymers in use today.

With all of these already existing solutions, UpGyres proposes that it is time for more and different companies, industries and governments to develop and exploit the plastic reserves of the world’s oceans. 

UpGyres offers to extract plastic deposits with bio intelligent and biomimetic robots. The advantage of using biomimetic robots is that they will blend with marine life; will be able to shelter themselves from storms and hurricanes; locate, track, pursue and actively collect as well as passively extract deposits of macro, meso and micro plastics from the surface and water column of the global ocean.

Each robot in a swarm will be able to extract a minimum of four tons and up to 16 tons in 24 hours. The bio-robots will bring back the collected variable synthetic polymers to the equivalent of a FPSO; a Floating, Eco-Extraction, Upcycling, Offloading vessel (FEUO) to process the recovered plastic resource at high seas. 

The FEUO then will be a floating facility hauling in hundreds to thousands of metric tons of plastic a day, separating, compacting and storing the various types of plastic into reusable, recyclable and upcyclable streams, and offloading them onto supply and carrier ships for shore processing. 

The FEUO will be in effect a Floating Receiving Consolidation Pre-Conditioning and Transfer Facility that segregates, sorts and separately bales all the different types of polymers collected by the bio-robots.

Upcycling the Gyres’ plastic deposits will have an effect opposite to that of offshore oil and gas extraction. Instead of oil drilling and waste plastics destroying the marine food chain and having a very high environmental cost, Upcycling the Gyres will deliver healthy, more abundant seafood and strong economic and environmental returns.

UpGyres based the economic calculations of our case on the information from the world’s first Global Estimate of Marine Plastic Pollution, published in 2014 by the 5 Gyres Institute. They determined that there were 269 thousand metric tons (593 billion pounds) of floating plastic on the ocean’s surface. Upcycling this amount of floating plastic can create approximately 200 billion liters of low sulfur fuel. At medium retail fuel prices in May 2017 in British Columbia, Canada of $1.19 per liter, revenues can translate into C$238 billion. These calculations do not account for the higher market value of chemical recycling of plastic into raw materials for manufacturing virgin plastics.

If there is even the slight probability of recovering up to 100 million metric tons of plastic waste; 56 million cumulative from 2010 to 2017 at a minimum of eight million tons per year and accounting for another 44 million tons cumulative from 1950 to 2009; chances are that it will be profitable to spend the time and money in the process of finding marine plastic ores (commercially viable concentrations of plastics) for Regenerative Marine Plastic Recovery for Re-Utilization.

For faster return on investment and higher profits, UpGyres integrates the bio-robotic regenerative extraction of marine plastic with resource delivery from sea-to-port with zero emission, zero fuel transport. The design of the bio-robot has been conceptualized in 3D renderings. The zero emission, zero fuel transport ZShips is seeking funding for prototyping. 

UpGyres invites and welcomes governments, consumer brands, technology suppliers, plastic recyclers, regulators and the Top 10 Plastics and Resins manufacturers with a combined total of $597.10 billion by global sales, to become international cooperation partners, investors and funders of UpGyres’ regenerative, zero emission, recovery and repurposing of marine plastic resources closed loop system. 

José Luis Gutiérrez-García is Project Director, Upcycle the Gyres Society.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.