We’ve all heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the continuing flow of oceanbound plastic. But what if something could intercept that plastic before it made it into the oceans? That’s the plan of SeaChange, a new organization that claims to have devised the technology to save our oceans from the plastic pollution crisis.

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jumbled heap of waste washed ashore

The start of SeaChange

SeaChange founders Carl Borgquist and Tim Nett grew up together in Paradise, California, and have been lifelong friends. They went on to have varied careers — Borgquist in renewable energy and as CEO of Absaroka Energy and Nett as a serial entrepreneur in advertising and media. But then their entire hometown burned in the infamous Camp Fire of 2018. Eighty-five people lost their lives and more than 11,000 homes burned to the ground. It was the worst fire in California history up to that point, and the future looked bleak as climate change worsened wildfires throughout the west.

Related: Babylegs — the inexpensive, educational way to monitor ocean plastic

 Climate change stops being theoretical when it destroys everything you’ve grown up with,” Nett said. “When there is no hometown to go back to. We couldn’t in clear conscience stand by and do nothing.”

The two men decided to put their considerable life experience and gray matter together to work on climate change. And they’ve made a promising breakthrough.

How SeaChange’s technology works

SeaChange will outfit its ships with something called the Plasma Enhanced Melter (PEM). The PEM uses plasma arc technology to zap plastic and other trash before it enters the ocean. Plastic is shredded before it enters the Plasma Arc Zone.

Instead of leaving harmful residues like conventional waste treatment methods, plasma arc technology uses high temperature and high electrical energy to heat waste, mostly by radiation. Organic material can be burned down into a combustible gas called syngas, which can be used as clean fuel for SeaChange’s ships. Inorganic components wind up as glassy slag. This reusable black glass is said to be nontoxic and safe for marine life.

SeaChange will heat the plasma arc to temperatures up to 18,000 degrees. “That’s like dropping it on the surface of the Sun,” SeaChange said on its website. While this may sound like science fiction, the technology has been used on hazardous and medical waste since 1996.

plastic bottle floating down a river

Finding the trash

Of the 400 million tons of plastic produced every year, 90% is burned, buried or lost in the environment. Only 10% is recycled. Even if plastic is recycled, you could say that’s delaying the problem. Up until now, plastic has been forever-lasting, with no permanent solution to vaporize it.

The SeaChange ships will seek the plastic that is lost in the environment. According to the organization’s research, about 10 million tons of plastic trash enters the oceans each year. That equals about one dump truck load per minute. Of this ocean plastic pollution, 90% flows into the sea from the 10 most polluted rivers. China’s Yangtze River gets the trophy for pollution champion, collecting 1.5 million tons of plastic trash before dumping it into the East China Sea near Shanghai. The runner-up is the Indus, which originates in Tibet before winding through Pakistan and then emptying an average 164,332 tons of plastic junk into the Arabian Sea by Karachi. The other eight rivers are the Yellow, Hai, Nile, Ganges, Pearl, Amur, Niger and Mekong Rivers.

Eventually, the SeaChange ships — equipped with plasma arc technology — will travel to these polluted rivers to harvest and vaporize plastic trash before it enters the ocean. The crew can process up to 5 tons of plastic on the ship each day, melting it down to about 225 pounds of inert black glass.

First stop, Indonesia

SeaChange is planning to go on its first mission in 2021. Destination: Indonesia. Currently, somewhere between 0.5 and 1.4 million tons of plastic waste wind up in the ocean around Indonesia every year. SeaChange plans to remove trash to protect a sensitive Indonesian ecosystem full of coral species and mangrove forests. The organization is still sorting out what NGOs, government agencies and individuals it can partner with to make the mission happen.

Since planning began, the pandemic has created additional logistical obstacles. It’s also contributing to the plastic problem. A huge surge of medical waste is landing in Indonesian waters after a six-month uptick in single-use gloves and masks. The trash that stays out of the waterways is being burned in open pits, exposing people to carcinogenic clouds of dioxins, which isn’t much better.

If all goes to plan, SeaChange will start making a dent in the oceanbound plastic problem next year. This partnership between Borgquist and Nett reminds us of the oft-repeated and inspiring idea that even something terrible can bring about something positive. For example, when your hometown burns, you decide to tackle one of the world’s biggest problems. If the Indonesia mission is successful next year, maybe we’ll one day see a SeaChange ship at the mouth of every polluted river.

+ SeaChange

Images via Kevin Krejci, M.W. and Sergei Tokmakov, Esq.