Project Sea Clear

A Business Model for Ocean and Environmental Disaster Mitigation

By Leland Lehrman, Managing Partner Fund Balance

Executive Summary

The Pacific Garbage Patch (PGP) is one of the most visible examples of human-induced ocean ecosystem degradation. Recycling and digesting the PGP while reducing ocean acidification and atmospheric carbon by revitalizing phytoplankton populations constitutes an integrated scientific and business model that can appeal to capital markets as well as NGOs and governments. Up to 40% of some seabird populations are dying as garbage displaces food in their diets. Photographs of dead seabird stomachs filled with plastic bottle tops and other garbage provide a stark reminder of the negative impact of irresponsible consumerist globalization. Using and improving upon the emerging payment for ecosystem services model, Project Sea Clear will harness the capital markets to a business model that may be able to clean up the PGP and similar ecological disaster zones.

The Crisis

Several years ago, the Pacific Garbage Patch burst onto the world scene through the efforts of a couple of pioneering oceanographers. At the time, Fund Balance published an article with photographs in a New Mexico newspaper. The magnitude of the project is huge. An area as much as twice the size of Texas, the patch is a floating soup of large to microscopic bits of plastic and other consumer refuse in the North Pacific Gyre that has many experts calling it an unsolvable crisis.

The Opportunity

The recent socially responsible investment conference, SRI in the Rockies was aptly titled from Crisis to Opportunity. Although sustainability investing has always offered material advantages when included in traditional bottom line investing, the advent of payment for ecosystem services such as carbon, biodiversity, and wetland protection credits means that the business model for protecting the environment has never been clearer. Project Sea Clear will use three revenue models to create a business opportunity that will appeal to international institutional investors and public-private partnerships. These revenue models are methane digestion, recycling and payments for ecosystem services, specifically carbon sequestration from improved ocean phytoplankton populations in the affected area.

  1. Methane Digestion – Municipal landfill gas is one of the hottest new carbon markets. Not only can the methane be captured and sold into the natural gas fuel market, but the sequestration credits adds substantially to the bottom line of this business. Ocean tanker trawlers could harvest the garbage from the sea, separate the hydrocarbon waste (plastic, rubber, etc) from the rest of the waste stream and turn it into usable gas, monitoring and monetizing the carbon sequestered.
  2. Recycling – Using the most advanced recycling technology, waste could be separated into reusable and salable components onboard specially outfitted supertankers or onshore.
  3. Payment for Ecosystem Services – The nearly billion dollar voluntary carbon market could provide willing buyers of carbon credits generated by monitoring and assigning Project Sea Clear credits for increasing the carbon sequestration potential of phytoplankton in the remedial area. A partnership with or other companies providing ocean carbon sequestration technology could substantially improve the ability of the ocean to help mitigate climate change from atmospheric carbon.

Areas for Additional Study

One of the main problems of the Pacific Garbage Patch is that plastic in the region is photodegrading, not biodegrading. This results in microscopic particles of plastic that are displacing plankton and other microscopic life forms in the food chain, leading to the intoxication of an entire ecosystem. Methods to increase the ability of the ocean to biodegrade these microscopic plastic particulates is vital in order to completely restore the health of the ocean. Work by Paul Stamets and others on bioremediation and brownfield cleanup techniques may help us identify a solution that will work for the ocean. It is also important that ocean carbon credits be included in the Copenhagen Carbon Protocol and subsequent agreements or treaties.

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