Posted on Collectively.
Fish hate it. So must the dolphins and sharks, whales and jellyfish. Yet plastic continues to blight the waves. Dutch non-profit the Ocean Cleanup has a plan to get rid of all the rubbish from the sea. Every. Last. Bottletop. Rachel Pott reports.
In August, 30 sailboats set off from Hawaii for California, trawling the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. This is an oblong-shaped ‘convergence zone’ shaped by circular currents, where the sea creatures are outnumbered by human debris. This fleet set sail under the guidance of the people behind Ocean Cleanup – who were calling it their ‘Mega Expedition‘ – and its mission was to gauge the scale of the pollution problem, while cleaning up as it moved along. Billed as the largest such expedition ever, it marked an amazing accomplishment for Boyan Slat.
Now 21, Slat was still in his teens and on a diving trip in Greece, when he came up with the idea for a marine clean-up.
“Suddenly I realised I had come across more plastic bags than fish,” he says. “So I wondered, why can’t we just clean this up?” Making sketches on a napkin while on another trip, this time in Portugal, he had a ‘eureka moment’: “Why would you move through the oceans, if the oceans can move through you?” And so in 2013, at the ripe old age of 18, he set up the Ocean Cleanup.
In summer last year, the organisation launched a crowdfunding campaign and the money flowed in. More than 38,000 backers, from across 160 countries, raised $2.2 million for the campaign.
Now, having duly completed tests for feasibility (tick) and proof of concept – we’ll come on to that shortly… – the next step will be a coastal pilot project in spring 2016. Situated near the island of Tsushima, halfway between Japan and South Korea, the 2,000-metre array of floating garbage catchers (similar to the one pictured below), will be 100 times longer than any floating structure previously deployed in the ocean. This pilot project will help test the structure in proper conditions, allowing Ocean Cleanup to practice all of the day-to-day operational elements, such as maintenance and the all-important collection of Things That Shouldn’t Be In The Ocean.
What makes The Ocean Cleanup’s technology particularly exciting is its exceptional efficiency at removing plastic. You might be tempted to write off cleaning up the planet’s oceans as an impossible task – surely they are too vast and the waste is too far spread-out for such a Hoovering operation to be either technically or financially viable. But get this: Cleanup’s floating barriers catch 80 percent of the plastic they encounter.
Under normal weather conditions, virtually all plastic accumulates at zero to two metres below the surface. Then the great oceanic currents of planet earth do a large part of the clean-up work for us, as the plastic flotillas move drift with the flow toward five main areas – the largest of which is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that gigantic gyre of marine debris. Ocean Cleanup estimates that by deploying a 100km array for 10 years, it could remove 42 percent of the plastic in the Patch – at a conservative estimate, this is 70 million kilogrammes of plastic, which could constitute the biggest rubbish collection in history.
August’s Mega Expedition is estimated to have yielded 10 million pieces of plastic once analysis complete in a few months – from small shards to colossal fishing nets, it’s all there.
This stroke of genius has come at just the right time. Leaving the plastic in the ocean is not an option. Beyond being an eyesore, plastic incurs huge health, environmental and financial costs. It jeopardises the survival of at least 100 species and kills more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals each year. Toxic chemicals are absorbed into the plastic and the concentration of pollutants increase as they bio-accumulate in the food chain – so throwing an empty milk bottle into the sea can end up putting poison into our bellies. The longer the plastic stays in the ocean, the further it breaks down, eventually creating micro-sized pieces – for which there is no known collection method. We need to move on this.
The Ocean Cleanup has a healthy approach to challenges and, despite the step change it’s already made in thinking around the crisis of the oceans, Slat sees it as a work in progress. The current design of Cleanup’s floating barriers enables them to survive storms and safely reach extreme mid-ocean depths, an engineering feat in itself. But recognising that simply removing the plastic isn’t enough, Ocean Cleanup is developing ways for the plastic to be transformed into new materials.
It’s notoriously hard to put an exact figure on the amount of plastic flotsam currently cruising the earth’s oceans. While mind-boggling, the current estimate – 5.25 trillion discrete pieces – is thought to be a highly conservative number. And let’s not forget that it’s virtually pointless to remove plastic from the oceans if we keep putting it back in. Despite countless campaigns to reduce the flow of trash into our waterways, enough plastic to equal the volume of two Empire State Buildings enters the oceans each and every week. In addition to the Ocean Cleanup, there needs to be a stronger effort to stop plastic before it reaches the water.
A reduction in ocean pollution by 2030 is now one of the UN’s Global Goals. There is a fair chance that the full-scale cleanup array will be in operation by 2020. However, says Lotte de Groot, media analyst for the Ocean Cleanup team, to be truly successful in solving plastic pollution, the flow of new plastic into the ocean is something that needs solving too. “I really urge governments and organisations to step up their game.”
This is where individuals can step in. Beyond appealing to governments for policy changes or applying to join The Ocean Cleanup team, Slat’s advice is to focus on coming up with big ideas. People can each make a small difference, but they can also do a lot more together, says Slat. “I invite people to be really bold.” So, what’s the best course of action if you’re confronted with a problem as big as the ocean? It’s to dive in.