Thank God for the talk hosted by the Italian Cultural Institute in New York entitled “Project: Planet Clean-Up,” featuring engineers Luca Rossettini, founder of D’Orbit, and Mauro Nardocci, director of communications at Sea Defense Solutions (SEADS). Finally, after all the gloom and doom about the state that the planet is in—which is by no means to be dismissed, especially considering the recent United Nations and World Meteorological Organization reports—it’s nice to hear that there are people out there who are working on temporary solutions to the Earth’s worsening health.
I say “temporary” because it is going to take the implementation of infrastructural changes that we all collectively adhere to, no matter class, corporation, or personal opinion. However, companies like D’Orbit and SEADS might at least act as strong bandages for the wounds we are inflicting upon nature, both terrestrial and celestial, as a result of human industrial activity. I want to stress that I do not think that more business interference (predicated solely on ensuring a turn of profit) is the way to fix what is perhaps our generation’s greatest problem, but we might as well allow those small start-ups rooted in the idea of fighting against climate change operate while we plan and implement provisions and policies for the good of the long game.
Let’s start with SEADS. Journalist, and moderator for this evening, Maria Teresa Cometto, mentioned news from Sardinia that a pregnant sperm whale had washed up on shore with 49 pounds of plastic in its stomach. But this tragic event is just symptomatic of a larger problem, as Nardocci pointed out, it’s not just about the whales or the turtles (though we probably should take action based solely on protecting other living creatures from suffering if it is in our power to do so). “I think it’s excruciating, the reality of our oceans… This is going to touch…3.5 [billion people] directly dependent on the oceans as the primary source of their livelihoods,” he said, mulling over the problem. “Not only is there plastic in some whales, but every fish that is in the ocean is feeding out of what we’re throwing there, and this is getting into our food supply chain. We’re eating it, we’re killing ourselves…from all the choices that we make.” Pretty unsettling.
But this is what SEADS is setting out to tackle: 88% of the plastic found in the world’s oceans comes from the ten biggest rivers in the world, including the Nile, the Ganges, and the Yangtze, according to Nardocci. That’s about seven million tons of plastic every year winding its way from humans through rivers to the oceans. So, SEADS introduced their concept of “Blue Barriers,” or barriers attached to the sides of rivers that float and guide plastic to the shore where it can be collected. This plastic can then be recycled and jobs can be created for the locals, according to Nardocci. By their estimates, it looks like this solution could put a significant dent in the plastic that flows out to the oceans, if installed in the ten largest rivers of the world.
However, it is important to recognize that this won’t solve the problem (which would require policy changes at federal levels of countries all over the world). Nardocci explained that there are some plastics that we simply can’t collect after they’ve gone out into the waterways–namely, micro-plastics. These minuscule pieces of plastic come off our clothes when we do the laundry, and they can’t really be picked up with SEADS technology. But again, while we wait for more legislature to be drawn up and passed, in the meantime this seems like a very promising start to finding band-aid solutions for the short-term.
Next is D’Orbit, Rossettini’s company that is dedicated to cleansing the atmosphere of satellite debris. There’s actually a lot of it up there, which is surprising or unsurprising, depending on your level of knowledge of satellite projects (NASA, telecommunications, other governments or companies, etc.). CO2 emissions are usually among the more well-known dangers to the atmosphere and to human health; pieces of space junk seem to be the last thing on the majority of people’s minds. Yet, as Rossettini asserts, if we are going to continue with space exploration and have the capability to be connected to the internet globally, we will have to find sustainable solutions for future satellite launches.
There have been thousands of these launches by governments and private companies alike since space exploration began over 60 years ago, and even after the satellites have served their purpose or malfunctioned, they are usually just left up there in the Earth’s orbit. To add to the problem, the U.S. shot at one of its decommissioned satellites in 2006 in order to destroy it, leaving more debris behind. China responded by shooting at its own satellite soon after, to demonstrate they had the same capabilities, and “it actually created 70% of the debris that we have in orbit now,” Rossettini stated.
Most recently, in the last couple of weeks, India joined China and the U.S. in this unsustainable practice as the third country to wreck a satellite in this way, and as Rossettini put it, we’ve proved “once again [that] we don’t learn from our mistakes.” “The situation now is dangerous,” he declared. “The European Space Agency mentioned that we are already over the threshold, so it means that the current activities that we are doing to avoid further pollution [are] not sufficient.” His company’s solution is “to go up and clean up what is already there” with technology that can safely and sustainably collect the satellites that have finished their missions.
So, what’s Rossettini’s vision for a future of space exploration after D’Orbit? “My goal is to create a space transportation business,” he said. “But it won’t be possible if you don’t first create a logistics infrastructure [in] space.” He further explained what he meant through an analogy: The Roman Empire’s strategy for expansion was to conquer a city and then immediately begin to construct roads in order to incorporate it into their territorial network of cities and towns. We need to do the same if we hope to keep exploring space, never mind entertaining the idea of designing colonies on Mars or elsewhere.
All-in-all, the gathering at the Italian Cultural Institute was a celebration of the strides that Italians are making in environmental science and aerospace technology, fields that perhaps aren’t traditionally associated with the country that gave the world the Florentine Renaissance. As Consul General Francesco Genuardi stated in his introduction, the event was meant to demonstrate, “how much [importance] Italy attaches to science, to the environment, and to serious and very deep research on this very urgent…issue.” In a way, this event suggests that if “a humanistic superpower” such as Italy, can also care about major scientific developments in the area of global sustainability, then countries normally viewed as the vanguard of science and technology (including the U.S.) can do the same.
However, this is not to say that there’s no precedent for Italy being a hub for scientific innovation. Rossettini phrased it best: “Italy was the third country worldwide to launch a satellite during the Cold War, after [the] Soviet Union and the United States…Initially NASA was coming to Italy to collaborate with Italy, not with the European Space Agency. So we have this in our history…We have a lot of creativity, we are dreamers.”
The event itself was cleansing in a sense, we read so many articles about why we need to worry about and fear the impending (and current) effects of climate change, yet so few about positive developments as a balance. Perhaps rightfully so; if someone had come up with the silver bullet to save the planet, we wouldn’t always need to be so concerned and ready to take action. And of course, it would be better to have effective policy in place so that plastic and space junk weren’t problems in the first place. However, it is important to recognize the small victories in the shadow of the bigger critical issue—how are we to stay sane otherwise?