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How to make machines from debris

July 15, 2010

Swedish home appliance manufacturer Electrolux will make a vacuum cleaner out of plastic debris recovered from the sea. A prototype is currently being made out of the first batches of plastic and the company hopes to be able to produce a limited series of vacuum cleaners from the debris. Given the enormous amount of plastic being dumped in the oceans, the Vac from the Sea project is an appreciated recycling initiative. However, the likelihood of this kind of debris collection ever becoming an source of raw material is slim, collecting plastic debris on beaches is down to tedious and costly manual work, and sifting it out of the oceans would mean covering huge areas with specially designed ships, hardly an alternative as long as plastic is so cheap.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that ocean currents concentrate plastic debris into huge patches covering areas as big as whole countries. The biggest one, named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, covers an area one and a half times as big as Sweden (or as big as the United States, the exact size is not known) and in it, according to one report, plastic outweighs surface zooplankton by a factor six to one. The same report estimates the total amount of plastic in the sea to around 100 million tonnes. What makes this problem even more tragic is that plastic is not biodegradable, though it is photodegraded into ever smaller pieces, only to eventually end up in the food chain where the toxins accumulate.

Apart from the necessary elimination of all dumping, initiatives like Vac from the Sea are welcome and we look forward to seeing more innovations based around collecting and processing materials discarded in nature. In the Sea of Inventions project we will present information on such inventions and perhaps some of them can one day be used to clean our oceans.

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