Please note! This post was updated 6/3/2015.
Indulge me for a moment, while I do what science fiction writers do: put two ideas together that don’t necessarily fit.

My imagination was caught today by a video a friend posted on Facebook this morning.

At first I worried it might be a hoax, but no–this technology is real.

It, or variations much like it, is being used all over the world, scaled up in some cases to an industrial level (see PK Clean, Agilyx, and Plastic2 Oil), or on an individual-household scale.

Pretty cool, huh? wouldn’t it be great to see this technology spread?

Convergence Zone in the North Pacific Gyre.

However, anytime you mention plastic waste, my mind turns inevitably to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is a vast floating convergence of marine trash–mostly plastics–created by current action of the North Pacific Gyre and the carelessness of people.

The Garbage Patch is located near the Midway Atoll, which is US territory, near the Hawaiian Archipelago. The Patch conservatively estimated to be the size of Texas, and it is a massive source of pollution and environmental destruction.

Carcass of an albatross chick on Midway Atoll.

One of the most destructive aspects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is that the plastics in it break down in the sunlight and are ingested by birds, sea turtles, and other wildlife. This causes all kinds of trouble, such as when the animals can’t pass the plastic, it fills their stomachs, and they starve. That’s not the only bad effect, but it’s a dramatic and all-too-prevalent one.

There are other Garbage Patches in the world’s oceans, of course, including the Great Atlantic Garbage Patch, and the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch. These swirling wastelands of trash are a global blight.

Drilling in North Dakota

So of course I went there. What if we could park ships equipped with plastic-to-oil plastic-recycling technology throughout the Great Pacific (or other) Garbage Patch? Our national policy the last few years has been focused on building energy independence; maybe this could eventually make the oil shale in North Dakota’s Bakken Formation look paltry.

Maybe it could put the idea of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off the table for good?

I’d certainly be happy about less fracking, less impact on fragile ecosystems, and more garbage removal from the ocean.

I’m not the only one who’s concerned about cleaning up the ocean, of course. The Ocean Cleanup team has a system that might be adaptable to my idea–it is scheduled to deploy next year. (Thanks for this info, Suraj Mohan!)

Yes, yes, I know. I’m WAY over-simplifying. My idea is impractical for thousands of immediate reasons. But what if they can be overcome? The key to any innovation is first to think of the idea, then solve the problems that currently make it impractical. Simple? Easy? No. Worth considering? We won’t know till we consider the possibilities for a while.

IMAGES: Many thanks to YouTube for the “Plastic to Oil” video, and to Wikimedia for the map of the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. The photo of the albatross chick full of plastic is from EcoWatch. Wikimedia strikes again, with the photo of the North Dakotan oil rig. Thanks!