March 28, 2014

Plastic trash

It is rare that architecture manages to make me angry, but here is a design that succeeds: Sung Jin Cho's Seawer: The Garbage-Seascraper. This won a honourable mention in Evolo's 2014 Skyscraper Competition. I assume it won it for nice design (it is indeed nifty looking) and being green.

The catch is that it fails to solve the problem it claims to solve.

The official motivation is that there is too much garbage in the ocean, forming things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Enormous amount of non-biodegradable plastic (6 times the plankton biomass, apparently) causing damage to the ecosystem. It would be good if it could be removed somehow.

Unfortunately the proposed solution is a floating skyscraper that filters the seawater using baleen filters. Leaving economics and practicality aside, I think the design could work (it is not too different from a Salter sink). But filtering away all plastic will also filter away all the plankton: anything that is effective at removing plastic will also remove the wildlife.

The design claims it could remove 50,000 tons of garbage per year, cleaning 100,000 square km per year. Assuming the patch size mentioned in the proposal (1,392,482 square km) that would require a Seawer to filter for 14 years in order to clean the patch. This might actually be slow enough to allow the wildlife to recover from losing 7% each year. Assuming only one Seawer is used, of course.

The fundamental problem here, and the reason I got annoyed, is that this is exactly the same thing as I ranted about back in 2010: "But this doesn't matter much to the proposer, since the main point seems to be to make a cool, green project rather than solving the problem. I have earlier ranted a bit about how many designers love to come up with green designs that will never have the least environmental impact but provide them with social gratification."

Indeed, the imagery is the same: pictures hinting at floating fridges and furniture at a density one could walk on (rather than fine confetti in the water column), then a beautiful project that turns it all into blue water. That the project is unlikely to ever be built does not really matter - after all, it was part of a blue sky design contest giving kudos to its originator. But the end result is a non-solution reinforcing an erroneous understanding of what the situation is.

I still like the design. But I wish this creativity had either been used to solve a real problem well, or just created something lifting our spirits.

Posted by Anders3 at March 28, 2014 01:31 AM