If you've seen pictures of the "great garbage patches" in the world's oceans, you already know that plastic pollution is a huge problem, and that doing something about it is hard. It's one thing to stop more waste from entering waterways by having more collection and recycling. It's another to work out how to clean up the mess once it's entered the water system.
James Dyson's tentative solution wouldn't fix the whole problem, but it might help with one source—rivers. The famed designer's recycling barge, which uses the same cyclone technology as found in Dyson's vacuum cleaners, has large nets that trap plastic floating on the river's surface. A suction system then pulls in the waste, where it's separated and then sent for processing.
"By skimming a highly concentrated flow of larger sized plastics in polluted rivers, the M.V. Recyclone would effectively mine a major source of the pollution before it reached the sea," the British engineer explained in an email.
"Large skim nets unfurl from the rollers at its stern and are anchored on each side of the river. Hydraulic winches wind them in and out. The nets face upstream and skim the surface of the river for floating debris. The plastic waste is shredded on board and then different grades of plastic are separated by a huge cyclone—very similar to the way our cyclonic vacuums work," he said.
Dyson first sketched out the idea for Time, but we asked him for a few more details. Originally, he thought the machine would be more like a "grid" fixed at certain strategic points of the river. But he eventually decided that wouldn't have the scale or mobility of a boat. Hence the M.V. Recyclone barge.
As someone who famously worked on 5,127 prototypes of his first vacuum, Dyson knows the barge concept needs more work. "The concept is the easy bit! It would need to be prototyped, tested, and refined and that’s the hard part," he says.
But he's convinced it could be done, and that, in time, the barge could capture even very small pieces of plastic. "To capture both large and small debris, you would probably need to employ a series of stages of separation," he says. "As better technology became available, you could upgrade the vessel to make it more efficient."