State of the Planet

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Urban Design Lab: Plastic TrashPatch


How much is your trash worth?  Using various visualization instruments, design ideas, engineering, and environmental science research, a team of designers, engineers, and scientists at the Urban Design Lab (UDL) are trying to find out.

A new initiative for 2010, Plastic TrashPatch, seeks to raise awareness of ”trashpatches,” thick areas of concentrated marine debris that have been created by water and wind flows that have had significant ecological impacts on ocean life.  The project also seeks to collaborate with research and advocacy organizations to investigate possible relationships between plastic waste, cities, and industries.

According to a UDL video for Plastic Trashpatch, Americans generate 10.5 million tons of plastic waste every year, but only recycle about 1 to 2% of it.  As a result, plastic litter that is not recycled gets pulled by wind and gathered by water currents, forming trashpatches that can be very substantial in size.  Of five major oceanic gyres, the North Pacific gyre is home to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a patch of concentrated marine debris estimated to be twice the size of Texas.  These large trashpatches have been found to significantly change marine environments and endanger ocean life.

Despite the danger posed to aquatic life by trashpatches, Manuel Mansylla, Design Director at La Fantastica LLC and a Columbia University graduate involved in Plastic Trashpatch, hopes to revision the trashpatches as potential opportunities, rather than as environmental problems.

“The fact that these massive concentrations of ubiquitous material are floating around…is a great opportunity.  When the right technology comes into place, or maybe it is already in place, it is a great opportunity for industries and corporations to understand plastic as something that has value,” he said.

Mansylla looks forward to not only reassessing the value of discarded plastic, but also to examine and view the trashpatches as potential resources for new design projects.

“Instead of seeing [the trashpatches] as a manmade environmental hazard, we want to try to think of them as a design challenge, as a way of framing it differently,” he said.

In addition to design solutions, Plastic Trashpatch seeks to find possible policy resolutions, utilize advocacy tools, and conduct research regarding plastic consumption pathways.  Richard R. Gonzalez, Project Manager at the Urban Design Lab, says the project also seeks to fully understand the impact of the use of plastic in everyday life and what happens to it after we discard it.

“We want to learn how garbage goes beyond our landfills and into…five ocean gyres.  Then, we hope to find, rather than landfills, what other venues we can utilize,” said Gonzalez.

With knowledge in design, engineering, biology, environmental science and more, Plastic Trashpatch takes an interdisciplinary approach to research and innovation, collaborating with professionals from various different fields.

“We have been having a dialogue with various research foundations…and with onsite floating facilities traveling to the North Pacific gyre.  We have been in communication with them in terms of what they see…to get a better understanding of what they are witnessing,” said Gonzalez.

To raise awareness, Mansylla hopes to be able to make the scientific research and  data available to a wide audience by “translating all of the data in the scientific realm…so it can be understood by the non-scientific community.”

The UDL video for Plastic Trashpatch also says that Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.  Hopefully, with greater research and collaboration, we can find ways to not only learn more about the pathways of plastic in our ecosystem, but also how to use this plastic in creative and exciting ways.

For more information about Plastic Trashpatch, go to

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13 years ago

Very informative article. We must definitely find ways to convert trash to something of use.Some countries are using some innovative technology to convert trash to fertilizers and chemicals. This way besides maintaining the ecological balance we can get something of value.