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Pollution-eating islands: the latest farming tool

Posting in Environment

Every year, polluted water traveling along the Mississippi River makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico, where it wreaks havoc on ocean life creating a dead zone thousands of square miles in size.

A major culprit is crop fertilizer, which runs off of farm fields and into ditches, streams and eventually into the Mississippi River. Environmentalists want stricter regulations to curb the problem and last year sued the U.S. EPA for its failure to set state pollution standards for nitrogen and phosphorus runoff.

The farming industry, worried about new, stricter regulations, is leaning toward a different solution: pollution-eating islands that could process nutrients before they reach the Mississippi, reported the New York Times.

Floating Islands International, a company based in Shepherd, Mont., has developed floating islands made from recycled plastic bottles and seeded with native plants that can mimic the role wetlands once played. (Check out how the floating island develops over time by comparing the photos of the initial install and one taken at a later date.)

Bruce Kania, who founded the company, was compelled to find a solution to polluted water after his black dog jumped into a pond and came out red, according to the company. He turned to the peat bogs in Northern Wisconsin--floating islands known for the abundance of fish that surround them--for inspiration.

Kania and his partners developed BioHaven, a floating island made of recycled plastic drink bottles capable of supporting the weight of plants and soil. The manmade islands biomimic natural floating islands to create a "concentrated" wetland effect.

The islands create a natural habitat for birds. But the real magic of the islands are what lies underneath. The islands have dense fibers and porous texture, the perfect material for growing large amount of microbes--in the form of biofilm--in a short amount of time, according to the company's website. The biofilm cleans the water and turns the unwanted nutrients into fish food.

The company launched its floating island prototype in 2005. Since then, more than 4,000 islands have been installed in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, UK, Korea and Europe.

The islands are now being used for habitat restoration, wetland and lake restoration, water quality and as wave breakers.

Photos: Floating Island International

— By on February 19, 2013, 1:01 AM PST

Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure