This morning I thought I might further digress deeper into the Green Theme. One of the key issues I’m exploring, and building consensus on with key stakeholders, is the nature of climate cure as a public good. For instance, how will businesses get paid for making the environment better when there is clear environmental improvement, but no immediate payback or sellable off-take?
Let me illustrate: one of the critical areas are the Oceans.
There are estimated to be over 7-12 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the seven seas – 71% of the earth’s surface is now polluted with everything from tyres, bottles to micro-plastics. We’re all familiar with photos of whales drowning in rubbish, turtles caught in beer rings, and seabirds caught in fishing lines. Much of the plastic waste is breaking down into smaller and small bits of microplastic – which is sinking into the ocean. These are the microplastics that are now working into the food chain, and poisoning us in ways we barely understand.
Where does all that plastic come from? Some 800,000 tonnes of plastic fishing gear and waste is lost at sea every year. But that is only a fraction of the 12 million tonnes of plastic being dumped into the sea every year. A clever young Dutchman, Boyan Slat, has figured out the best way to address it – check out his company Ocean Cleanup, it’s a sign the world is getting better!
Slat has done the science – identifying how most of the rubbish comes from the land, gets dumped into rivers, floats out to sea where is circulates with the currents before collecting in the Ocean gyres in the centre of the major seas. He’s researched river waste and found its 1000 rivers that account for 90% of plastic waste flowing into the ocean. He’s also spotted river waste tends to flow into the faster flowing parts of the river, thus its relatively simple to corral river waste into floating “interceptor” barges, when the waste is then collected.
Cutting down that 12 million tonnes of plastic will take is a fleet of these solar powered interceptors around the globe. They make sense – but who pays?
That still leaves the billions of tonnes of waste already floating in the ocean. We’ve been looking at technologies to address that. And let’s start with a proposition anything cleaning up the oceans has to be clean itself.
The solution will be to automate the process and make it zero-energy. Some very bright engineers in Ireland have developed a “Wave Tug” technology that uses the circular motion of waves to propel a device through the waves. It won’t require crew and can be steered by remote technology, (like a drone) and set on a pre-set course.
Put two of these tugs together, towing a flexible “beach” behind them, and you have a cheap, simple ocean clean up unit. Its slow and steady so it doesn’t trap sealife, and won’t get strained. The beach lands the waste, which is collected behind. Put 10-20 of these units into each of the oceans to clean up the plastic gyres, and they will quickly clear it up. The costs will be those relating to collecting the rubbish from the tug units.
There is an even more fascinating potential use for the Wave Tug tech – using the to steer and drag icebergs to drought stricken areas. Water security will be the biggest global resource issue in coming years.
The question with both Ocean Clean Up and the Wave Tug is who pays? The plastic they collect from rivers and oceans can’t just be reprocessed. There are so many different plastic types that mixing them up results in a grey gloop. It isn’t worth anything – in fact waste treatment plants are based around charging gate-fees to dispose of waste – ie, we’d have to pay!
Yet, the environmental benefits are enormous. Who pays? It’s a clear public good, and its something we’re engaging the right people on.
Meanwhile, funding initiatives like Ocean Clean Up, Wave Tug and other new tech is complex, unproven and risky. Its Frontier Venture Capital. Do we go to well known philanthropic funds – who typically tell us they don’t finance start-ups – or do we take them elsewhere? A large plastic manufacturer may see them as attractive – coming to agreements with Governments to only produce as much new plastic as they recover and process?
If I was a smart businessman keen to be linked to ocean clean up – well, I’d want my name all over these projects… just saying…
Bill Blain is a well-known City of London commentator, and has 35 years’ market experience as an investment banker. He currently is Strategist at Shard Capital, a London-based boutique. Article republished from the Morning Porridge by permission.