World Ocean Weekly

Solutions for Recycling, Repurposing, and Profiting from Modern Day Waste

Image Credit: Claire Fackler, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries, Marine Photobank

Let’s talk about recycling. The idea is certainly not new. For millennia humans have maintained, re-purposed, and re-used tools and resources as part of an essential economy based on what is available, what is the need, and what is the best way to meet that need without waste. The behavior was reality; there was no choice. But as we multiplied and responded with innovation and technology, we discovered that we could make more than ever before, into goods and necessary services; we could build and earn our way beyond scarcity to a new standard of making, consuming, and living that today is both system and expectation of surplus, even excess.

Waste and its management are the new challenges of this day. How do we dispose of toxic tailings and spoils, plastic containers and packaging, discarded automobiles, old refrigerators, outmoded televisions, superseded computers, or out-of-fashion smart phones? Where does it all go? Into dumps where we attempt to cover and contain its seepage and deterioration; into the groundwater and watershed and ocean where it does invisible damage to the land and sea and all that lives in it or depends upon it.

Take that to scale and your have poisoned aquifers with water unfit to drink, lakes and streams hostile to native species, an ocean surface pocked with vast clusters of floating debris, and a water column corrupted solution of poisons we cannot see, taste, or feel until we can through algal blooms, dead fish, and sick people.

We recycle what, and how much of this waste? We collect aluminum cans, some glass, paper, and cardboard and a small percentage of the plastic discard, and turn them into similar products for similar uses. We feel good about this. Not everyone does it.

We also have some bright new ideas. For example, we recycle discarded ocean plastic into clothing and soap bottles and surfaces for parking lots; we recycle fishnet and line into carpet tiles, skateboards, and doormats; but when you really consider what percentage of everything we produce and then recycle to be produced again, it must add up to a pittance.

How do we turn bad trash into good cash?

Here are some thoughts:

First, what if we refrain from creating the trash, at all by conserving or using less of the things that enable its making? Use less plastic by not using plastic bags, rejecting plastic packaging, substituting re-usable containers, glass not Tupperware, for just one example. These small individual protests, and many more such similar actions, are easily done now by any of us and our families at home.

Image Credit:

Second, what if we recycle more, by insisting that all plastics be recycled, that all engine oil and fast food frying fat be recycled, that all manufactured items be made of recyclable products or, if not, carry a penalty deposit for the true cost of their safe disposal? What if we held corporations responsible for their industrial waste, enforced, not diluted or contradicted regulations justified by the right of the public to be protected from such premeditated impacts on human health? Some of these have been tried and successful, until they are subverted by the narrowest interest that asserts mean shareholder return over basic human rights. These, too, are achievable through political will.

Finally, what if we built a new economy on a recycling ethic, a price or tax structure built on the inherent value of re-use, the concept that an item is more valuable if it can be used longer or it can be re-used for a process and production that exploits and affirms its economic basis again and again in a cycle of maximum utility and return? What if it costs more, not less, to purchase a non-recyclable item built from a waste-based process? This would not be a new principle on Earth; it too is achievable as the revival of a principled behavior that attacks waste at its irresponsible, anti-social core.

Without substantive recycling, in these ways or others, we perpetuate waste. Waste is excess. Excess is pollution. Pollution dirties our air, corrupts our land, fouls our water, poisons our ocean, and diminishes our future.

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American Sea Writing and the Poetry of the Ocean

“Polychrome Vase in the Form of a Fish”
 British Museum Postcard
 El-Amarma, XVIIIth Dynasty, (c. 1365 BC)
 Glass. 1.2 3/4″
 The British Museum, London

Writing for World Ocean Observatory involves describing policies and projects in specific detail — journalistically correct but not always as evocative as can be. Sometimes the more emotional and abstract observations do better at making the point by realizing the acuity of an experience. I have been teaching a seminar with readings drawn from an collection entitled American Sea Writing: A Literary Anthology that I edited in 2000 for the Library of America, New York, as an alternative to similar compendia of mostly British authors and experience.

The course has been focused on identifying and hearing unique American voices and narratives related to ocean passage and coastal observation. The approaches and themes are many. Among them the ocean as metaphor; as a place apart and psychological space; the storm as epic event; exploration and the naming of places and things; voluntary and involuntary immigration; sea power in relation to imperial expansion and the opening of trade; the coast and life on the edge; women at sea; diversity and integration of crews; the mariner’s log as personal journal; the voyage as a story of coming of age; acculturation through maritime exchange of goods and ideas; the building of an American ideal; survival and death and the transforming nature of life; the pilot and the hand of God. The literature of the maritime experience is a very rich story indeed, a wonderful cacophony of distinct voices and a perspective on the history of the United States that is not often identified and shared.

Here is a poem from that collection, The Fish, by Marianne Moore (1887–1972), first published in 1918, that, as described in my introductory note to American Sea Writing, “renders the profusion of undersea life with her characteristic detachment and attentiveness. However precise, the poem is also alert to the less tangible presence of the ocean, its unseen essence of force and motion. Out of the immediacy of the aquatic world emerges a vision of the sea in all its battered, timeless grandeur.”

by Marianne Moore (1887–1972)

through black jade
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices–
in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice–
all the physical features of

of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand 
out on it; the chasm-side is

evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

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A World of Blue: The United Nations and the Ocean

Peter Neill, director of the World Ocean Observatory, has been invited to moderate the two-day inter-parliamentary hearing at the United Nations February 13 and 14 in New York City. Entitled "A WORLD OF BLUE: Preserving the Ocean, Safeguarding the Planet, and Ensuring Human Well-Being In the Context of the UN Sustainability Goals for 2030," the hearing brings together nearly 300 members of parliament from around the world for a discussion about ocean issues. Outcomes from A WORLD OF BLUE will provide contributions to the UN Oceans Conference in June.

The ocean covers about 70% of the earth’s surface, the land mass divided into multiple social units that contain burgeoning population, extraction and use of myriad natural resources, and serve as an ever-shifting arrangement of community, cooperation and conflict. There are 196 nations on earth today; the United States recognizes 195 and the United Nations counts 193 as its members. Of the total, 47 nations are land-locked, have no access to the ocean. The other 149 have watersheds and rivers that reach the sea, coastal communities and port cities that typically host larger populations engaged in enterprise and trade.

Thus the ocean has an enormous implication for a vast percentage of earth’s inhabitants and exists by virtue of global connection as an equally vast commons that cannot be individually exploited or easily governed by any single nation state. The history of war at sea in the name of economic development and the extension of influence and power is a continuing reminder of this challenge.

The United Nations serves as a forum for communication and resolution of issues that confront all nations in the form of treaty agreements, regulatory standards, social and political goals and objectives designed to maintain parity and justice and to promote equity and peace. Representatives from all nations gather to discuss and negotiate, to agree and disagree, and oftentimes come to conclusions and arrangement that contribute to the maintenance of international order for the benefit of all mankind. It would seem that oceans would be an essential part of that focus.

That assumption has taken some time to realize. In early drafts of assessment reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the ocean was hardly addressed at all. Language was drafted but not included or modified at the last minute to the consternation of many who had worked so assiduously to draft content and language that merited inclusion. But things have changed for the better and many UN agencies have expanded their ocean agenda to include new ocean issues in comprehensive reports and plans such as the Sustainable Development and Consumption Goals, a First World Ocean Assessment, Tourism and Biodiversity, Marine Plastic Debris, International Seabed Authority, Food Security and Aquaculture, International Maritime Safety, Climate Change, and the Law of the Sea. All of these subjects will be addressed in a forthcoming meeting of the International Parliamentarian Union, “A WORLD OF BLUE: Preserving the Ocean, Safeguarding the Planet, and Ensuring Human Well-Being In the Context of the UN Sustainability Goals for 2030,” wherein some 300 legislators from countries with ocean issues who will meet at the General Assembly in New York for two days of panel presentations and workshops, moderated by the World Ocean Observatory, to familiarize these representatives with ocean issues and to organize observations and suggestions to be presented as a final report to the General Assembly at The Ocean Conference at the UN Headquarters in June.

The purpose of this larger meeting is to be “the game changer” that will reverse the decline in the health of our ocean for people, planet and prosperity. It will be solutions-focused with engagement from all as a means to support the implementation of Goal 14 of the UN 2030 Agenda “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” The WORLD OF BLUE Conference shall:

  • Build on existing successful partnerships and stimulate innovative and concrete new partnerships to advance the implementation of Goal 14.
  • Involve all relevant stakeholders, bringing together Governments, the United Nations system, other intergovernmental organizations, international financial institutions, non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, academic institutions the scientific community, the private sector, philanthropic organizations and other actors to assess challenges and opportunities relating to, as well as actions taken towards, the implementation of Goal 14.
  • Share the experiences gained at the national, regional and international levels in the implementation of Goal 14.

The event will culminate with the World Oceans Day celebration on June 8th when organizations and civic groups gather worldwide to focus on the sustainable ocean through educational events, festivals, beach clean-ups, and other activities to build public awareness and engagement with the urgent need to understand and preserve the ocean for the benefit of all mankind. This schedule and language may appear complicated and careful, and indeed it is, but this is the pace of deliberation and consensus that lies at the core of the United Nations process of balancing and reconciling the myriad interests of the 193 members whose ultimate consensus will enable change and success for the sustainable ocean.

Ocean Innovation: Looking To the Sea to Sustainably Meet Global Agricultural Need

As the world population continues to grow, we need protein from land and sea in ever-increasing amounts and quality. This has driven us toward genetic modification of seeds, industrial agriculture, dramatic increase in fertilizer development and use, and experiments with aquaculture to replace the protein from the ocean more and more reduced by over-fishing. Each of these is fraught with resistance, consequence, and sometimes abuse that do not necessarily meet the challenge.
What about the ocean and agriculture? Is there a contribution the ocean can make beyond aquaculture toward sustainable food production worldwide? Let me offer two hopeful examples:
The first is a land-based phenomenon, a process for farming that does not need soil, fossil fuels, groundwater, or pesticides — production even in the desert that is sustained by sun and seawater. Sundrop Farms is a project in Port Augusta in Southern Australia, a 20 hectare farm that grows tomatoes and other vegetables hydroponically in greenhouses powered by the sun. The system is growing tomatoes in “soil” composed of coconut husks and waste cardboard saturated in seawater with energy for pumps and other electrical support generated by the sun. Today the farm is growing some 18,000 tomato plants — 17,000 metric tons of food already on sale in Australian grocery stores. The system cost over $200 million dollars to build. An intimidating sum, but investors are confident of payback and return by the substantial cost savings by not having to purchase fossil fuel energy in a very expensive market. Expansion is already planned, with the addition of peppers and fruits.
Sundrop is also building new such facilities in similar zones — Portugal in Europe and Tennessee in the United States.
What we have here is a fascinating adaptation to the realities of the global energy market and fresh water crisis. There is inherent in the concept not just reaction, but pro-action, realizing that the market cost of land acquisition and conventional fossil fuel-based energy can be mitigated by alternative availability of land, reducing expenses dramatically, exploiting the available supply of free sun and seawater, and providing protein at scale to profitably meet a worldwide demand.

Are smart floating farms (SFF) the wave of the future? Combining solar energy, hydroponics, and aquaculture, this technology is a forward-looking investment in long-term security and resilience. Photo credit:
A second example speaks to the larger question of the availability of arable land. Industrial agriculture, for all its benefit, has nonetheless caused serious detriment to land available for farming. Add to that the climate impacts of severe weather, drought, and over-consumption by irrigation from the aquifer and ground water supply; add to that the escalating cost of expansion, equipment, and fertilizer, and the nitrate pollution of increased use of that fertilizer; and add to that the impact of hydraulic fracking for oil in farming areas that has caused productive land to be converted to this alternative use, and you have another crisis of aridity, availability, and accountability of traditionally arable land.
So, consider the concept of floating farms, large structures in the ocean, used to complement and expand traditional farming, again exploiting the availability of salt or desalinated water and alternative energy from sun and wind, enabling both hydroponic growing and aquaculture, creating new employment for small-scale farmers and fishers, and providing the protein that the exhausted land can no longer. Located in secure areas adjacent to energy and water, protected against sea level rise and extreme weather by seawall and barriers, creating value through labor and reduced cost, floating farms can be constructed now, using available engineering and technology, as a forward-looking investment in long-term food security and resilience.
It is not incorrect to say that these innovations could meet the food demand for the entire world. How can we do otherwise?
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“Ocean Agriculture” was originally broadcast as an audio episode on World Ocean Radio. It is part of the Earth Optimism Series, 24 posts profiling conservation actions and innovations to reduce our impacts on the planet. The Earth Optimism Series is brought to you by the World Ocean Observatory in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s Ocean Portal, to raise awareness of the Earth Optimism Summit during Earth Day weekend, April 21st through 23rd, 2017 in Washington DC and around the world. Read more solutions and success stories here and share your own ideas at

Ocean Innovation: Linking Known Technologies with New Possibilities

Once upon a time I wrote a story about a wise man staring out to sea, whose vision brought followers to the shore in search of wisdom. One day his thoughts seemed to stall, mind emptied, as if what he knew was no longer valuable or pertinent. Frustrated and bereft, he felt that he had no purpose or future. Until one day a child invited him to stand up, stretch his limbs, and turn around. Seated again, in the same place, with the same view of the ocean horizon, he awakened to a new vision, an exhilarating prospect conceived with the same knowledge of his past views, but now again vital and useful for those who came to learn.

This clumsy parable points to the dangers of consistency and complacency, of minds closed by routine and fear of change, and most importantly to renewal and re-invention oftentimes using the tools in hand to create new from old, an optimistic, forward-looking process that has characterized human progress for centuries.

Let me give you two examples of the synergy between known technologies imaginatively related toward new possibilities and positive outcomes:

The complexity and cost of ocean research has demanded more efficient and economical research tools and the use of stationary or free-circulating data collection buoys which has become the heart of ocean data collection and observation. But these too, like their forbears — tethered submersibles and costly research vessels — have advanced to become remote underwater vehicles that can follow a programmed trajectory and research collection plan. Just recently, a new technology, geothermal energy generation, making electricity through the expansion and contraction of a non-toxic material generated by changing ocean temperature to charge and maintain batteries that propel the vehicle through its dives, upload its collected data via satellite to a station ashore, and broadcast its GPS location for recovery by ship when the mission is completed. Here we have a link between advanced data collection and novel sustainable energy generation that increases range, time at sea, immediacy of access, and efficiency of limited financial resources while decreasing cost, vulnerability to weather or exhausted fuel, problematic launch and recovery, and the need for difficult maintenance and replacement. This project is the result of collaboration between Cal Tech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the technology licensed to a private company called Seatrek which is pursuing its further development and use.

Let’s take a second example on a much larger scale:

Many nations of the world have invested heavily and successfully in wind generated energy, fields of windmills often located in coastal and offshore areas where wind velocity and consistency is at its highest. The success of this technology, coupled to solar generation, has vastly increased the market share of alternative energy generation, with some countries reporting successive days of and sometimes 100% contribution to the national capacity requirements. At the same time, the world has realized a critical fresh water crisis that has challenged the stability and security of cities often located along the coast. In many such cases, in Australia, Israel, the Arabian nations, and even the United States, water managers have turned to desalination technology to augment diminishing supply. That crisis is estimated to increase and the demand for efficient desalination will only expand exponentially. The process is expensive, specifically because of the electrical demand to drive the pumps and equipment. Here again, suddenly, the technology link seems obvious – the connection between coastal wind power and coastal desalination plants in drought-stricken and/or urban areas, so many of which are located directly by the sea. The shift is already occurring. This project is being promoted by the Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance to many national and city governments and private companies and developers as a practical, innovative response to a desperate challenge.

Think of what can come of this linkage: an entirely new system for emissions-free, non-fossil fuel-based energy for power to meet the universal public necessity for adequate fresh water needed to survive. Think of the future implication of fresh available water for drinking, bathing, and maintaining our homes and communities. As with my wise man, the answer is obvious, there before our very eyes, everything we need to invent a future that will provide for and sustain us, with wisdom known and available, but only when we have stood up and turned round, optimistically, to see.

Once upon a time is now.

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“Ocean Connections and Innovations” was originally broadcast as a 5-minute audio episode on World Ocean Radio. It is part of the Earth Optimism Series, 24 posts profiling conservation actions and innovations to reduce our impacts on the planet. The Earth Optimism Series is brought to you by the World Ocean Observatory in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s Ocean Portal, to raise awareness of the Earth Optimism Summit during Earth Day weekend, April 21st through 23rd, 2017 in Washington DC and around the world. Read more solutions and success stories here and share your own ideas at

Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of THE ONCE AND FUTURE OCEAN: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society available wherever books are sold.