When Dutch-national Boyan Slat went scuba diving in Greece, he was surprised to see more plastic than fish. Upon Googling the problem, the 16-year-old discovered that very little effort had been made to try and solve it.
Four years later, after graduating high school and dropping out of his university aerospace engineering course to work on the design, he thinks he’s found the way to rid the ocean of discarded trash.
The Ocean Cleanup project aims to tackle plastic accumulation in the five locations where ocean currents converge. These sites—nicknamed “garbage patches”—vary in size, with the largest (the Pacific garbage patch) measuring an area three times the size of France. The plastic that has gathered in these locations are harmful to all life on Earth. The majority of the materials will never go away by themselves, but will rather break down into microplastics: tiny, toxic fragments that are consumed by fish, and then build up inside the bodies of animals that eat them—including humans. Evidence now suggests that microplastics affect the reproductive health of both people and wildlife.
Previous efforts to collect the plastic have focused on using vessels and nets—a strategy which has been estimated to take thousands of years, cost tens of billions of dollars, and be harmful to sea life. Slat’s vision, however, is both more environmentally friendly, and cheaper to execute.
Rather than sending boats trawling through the seas, The Ocean Cleanup project will use the water’s natural currents to attract the garbage into a particular area, boundaried by a contraption Slat spent multiple years designing. A snaking, 600-meter long floating tube will sit at the surface of the water, and a tapered three-meter-deep skirt will reach down underneath to create an artificial coastline. The apparatus would trap the plastic ranging in size from one millimeter to tens of meters, letting it accumulate in one specific, concentrated location. Every few months, a large boat would collect all the plastic and take it back to land to be sorted for recycling.
After years of testing, the company is now ready to deploy its first cleanup system. On September 8, it will put one of its trash collectors into the Pacific Ocean, at the centre of the Great Pacific Garbage patch. Launching from the assembly yard in Alameda and towing it through the San Francisco bay, the non-profit will be the first to ever attempt to reclaim vast amounts of plastic from the sea.
By the company’s calculations, a full-scale roll-out of its technology (approximately 60 systems) could clean away half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’s debris in just five years. Aiming to scale the operation to all five ocean currents hosting huge piles of trash, The Ocean Cleanup hopes to remove 90 percent of all ocean plastic by 2040.
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