Recycling the Pacific Trash Vortex into an island

I don’t know whether or not Kay Kenyon heard about this before writing her Shine anthology story “Castoff World”, but if not, the similarities are uncanny. A Dutch firm of architects have proposed a project to turn the Pacific Trash Vortex into a habitable (and indeed arable) sea-worthy island, simply by recycling in situ all the plasticky crap that’s already there [via SlashDot]:

The Pacific Ocean trash dump is twice the size of Texas, or the size of Spain combined with France.  The Pacific Vortex as it is sometimes called, is made up of four million tons of Plastic.  Cleaning it up is going to cost a lot of money and require a great deal of either scooping up the plastic and shipping it back to shore, or some sort of onsite recycling for building something like Recycled Island.

One of the three major aims of the project is to clean up the floating trash by recycling it on site.  Two, the project would create new land for sustainable habitation complete with its own food sources and energy sources.  Lastly, Recycled Island is to be a sea worthy island.


Further aspects of the island would be: the creation of “fertile ground” from compost toilets.  The island would also be non-polluting, using natural resources.  Recycled Island would be 10,000 Km2 or the size of Hawaii’s main island.  It would be self-sustaining and not dependant on other countries.  The urban housing would be designed for future climate refugees. These are very lofty goals but if carried out, Recycled Island would turn the trash into a money making enterprise rather than an economic sink hole.

Hmmm… an ideal candidate for city-state status, then. But any nation-state along the edge of the Pacific is going to be a bit uneasy about a recycled island that can move itself around at will, and which isn’t dependent on anyone for anything. Compare and contrast to The Raft from Snow Crash: with the latter, refugees want to invade, assimilate themselves; on the other hand, a self-sufficient pirate island will attract away your own malcontents, weaken your authority.

Recycled Island is a great idea from a technological perspective, but the geopolitics are too horrifying to contemplate. Think of the way Antarctica is being scrabbled over, thanks to its oil reserves; the very same economic pressures and scarcities will eventually make a huge lump of plastic floating in the sea look like a natural resource well worth exploiting. But then, that might mean invading a moving country populated entirely by people displaced by climate change… so I wouldn’t plan for your invasion being a cakewalk if they’ve decided they want to stay.

9 thoughts on “Recycling the Pacific Trash Vortex into an island”

  1. Paul,

    I think your critique is right. But I think this should have been one of those “It’s easier to apologize than ask permission” things. Just eat up the plastic, build the island and let all those failing nation-states (my own included) deal with it later. We’ll be so busy saving our sunken cities, paying our outstanding debts and watching millions starve that a little old peripatetic island won’t matter.

    Ain’t I an optimist?

  2. This is definitely something I am excited about. And they do seem to be taking a do it and worry about the consequences later approach.

  3. I’m not so sure this is a great idea.

    What happens when it hits a massive storm? You could have various parts of the island in multiple troughs and on top of multiple crests at one time, and these waves could easily be massive and non-uniform.

    You would also have to desalinize the seawater to get fresh water, which is expensive and energy intensive. Where would this money and energy come from?

    Also, what are the health risks to actually living on and around plastic 24/7? Evidence is accumulating that suggests a lot of plastic is very bad for our long-term health.

    Then, as Paul mentioned, you have the geopolitics. Unless the island founders can convince the U.S. government they are harmless, which is almost impossible, or the U.S. could gain a strategic advantage by using the island (I’m doubtful it would be a strategic boon to the U.S.) there is no way the U.S. would allow something of any significant size to be created. The U.S. is far too concerned about the Pacific (it’s top strategic concern now and for the foreseeable future) to allow a wildcard, which could be moved close to its shores, to be thrown into the current situation.

    Fun idea to think about, but not really workable.

  4. As far as water goes they can use rainwater catching, desalinization on a small scale with solar power, and aggressive water conservation programs. They could quite possible keep their water losses pretty low.

    Storms are more of a threat, the health problems with plastic are something we really all ought to be concerned about, and they wouldn’t be living directly on the plastic, as far as I can tell they’d be living on composted topsoil on top of the plastic.

  5. I think you are making the water situation too simplistic. Though, it would be interesting to see if it worked.

    Concerning the soil, I bet you would find plastic traces in it after a few years.

  6. Rainwater may well be sufficient – look at Bermuda. If not, a solar desalination plant could easily make up the difference. I don’t think you need to worry about energy consumption in the tropical Pacific.

    As to US objections – it’s international waters. I’m not sure the US has anything to say about it, and attacking Dutch citizens would be an act of war and/or piracy. I think they’re probably relatively safe.

    I hope they go forward with it; this is a pretty cool idea (I wish I’d thought of it, too!)

  7. @ Mike

    If rainwater wasn’t sufficient you would have to worry about energy consumption, as desalination is very energy intensive. Plus, solar isn’t yet efficient enough to be cheap.

    Of course, the U.S. isn’t going to attack it! That is ludicrous and not what I was suggesting at all. There are numerous ways the U.S. could hamper development without killing anyone or destroying anything. Not that the U.S. will have to do anything as this isn’t a great idea and won’t ever get off the ground.

  8. I’ve been out of the loop for the past week, and it took an email of Kay Kenyon to point me to this.

    This is cool: funded by Dutch architects, and I like the *central* idea: instead of waiting for the polluters to do something about it (extremely unlikely, unless it’s a huge oil spill directly threatening their beaches, not an isolated spot — no matter how large — in the middle of nowhere), it tries to turn the recycling into a profit-making enterprise.

    If that is or is not possible is, of course, very hard to say. But it sees this problem as an opportunity, which is a much stronger selling point, thus bringing action closer by.

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