Trash Talk: A Winning Design has Potential to Clean Lakes and Oceans

Wed, Apr 3, 2013

Alumni Networks

Trash Talk: A Winning Design has Potential to Clean Lakes and Oceans

Reported and submitted by Jennifer Nault

Longtime friends and McGill Architecture classmates Caileigh MacKellar and Newsha Ghaeli paired up last year to design an ingenious multifunctional structure that could help eradicate a major global waste problem.  Their creation has already garnered recognition in some very prestigious places, and won a design competition.

Both completing a Master of Architecture Program at the time, they came up with the concept while working on a class project that encouraged students to tackle environmental issues.

MacKellar and Ghaeli chose to design a completely self-sustainable floating machine that skims oceans, capturing and recycling plastic waste. The machine, a system of connected pipes that follow the motion of the waves, was specifically designed to deal with a massive ocean gyre (a system of rotating ocean currents) of marine debris with the grim name of the Pacific Trash Vortex.  Located in the North Pacific Ocean, the gyre is the size of Texas, and is characterized by a large concentration of floating plastics.


The machine would gather plastic through “passive collection,” says Ghaeli, meaning that the system requires no energy to operate.

Scooping up ocean debris is one thing. But the functionality doesn’t stop there. The design also harnesses the energy of the machine’s moving joints and creates solar power (the surface is covered with solar tiles). “It could generate enough energy to power 30,000 homes,” says Ghaeli. Furthermore, it is designed to not just capture plastic waste, but to process it as well.

Human habitation was also part of the project’s mandate: “We saw the space as an ideal setting for a research centre, complete with labs, a water remediation (essentially, purification) research tower, and a public education zone – something like a space station, but floating on the ocean,” says Ghaeli.

Polytropism, the project name, is a nod to the concept of biomimicry, a trend in architecture, engineering, design, and other technical professions of “emulating organic structures, with modular systems that are highly customizable,” explains Ghaeli.

Their professor urged them to submit their project to Azure Magazine, for the 2012 AZ design competition. Their design won in the student category. This March, the design was profiled once again, this time in the Globe and Mail. In this particular iteration, the illustration presented a different setting for their machine than the Japanese coast they had initially envisioned:  the Toronto waterfront.

“It’s also possible that our floating machine could help remediate the Great Lakes,” says Ghaeli.  Who knows, perhaps the next illustration of their concept could show the beaches of Toronto Harbour crowded with swimmers…

To see more photos of the concept, check out our Flickr collection.

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