Thanks to human pollution, our oceans are in trouble. In the 1990s, scientists discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a “floating blob halfway between California and Hawaii that’s twice the size of Texas.” The patch has accumulated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash from countries around the Pacific Rim, primarily China and other Asian countries. (1)
In 2013, 16-year-old Boyan Slat was shocked to see more trash than fish when scuba diving, and even more shocked when he learned about the lack of any cleanup plans. After high school, Slat presented his idea at a TEDx conference, and in 2013, the TEDx video went viral. As a result, Slat’s non-profit, The Ocean Cleanup, recruited a team and quickly gained $90,000 in crowdfunding. By 2014, The Ocean Cleanup became the most successful non-profit crowdfunding campaign ever, raising $2,200,000 with the support of 38,000 people from 160 countries. (3) And now, 4 years later, Slat’s vision is being put in place, with one of his cleanup systems, System 001, being deployed this week for testing.
The 24.6 million dollar system consists of a nearly 2000 ft floater that is supposed to collect about 5 tons of plastic from the ocean per month. System 001 floats at the surface of the water and has a 10 ft skirt floating below. The system will capture trash as it floats through the ocean. Its floater prevents trash from floating above the system while the skirt underneath prevents trash from escaping underneath. The system takes advantage of the ocean’s natural flow to catch the plastic without disturbing wildlife. The skirt creates a downward flow, allowing marine life to travel underneath it and not become trapped like the plastic. The system is propelled by the ocean’s current, allowing it to follow the plastic. Since the floater is also above the ocean, it is also propelled by the winds and waves, while the plastic, which is just under the surface, is not. This means that the system moves faster than the plastic, capturing the plastic. Furthermore, since the system’s skirt is longer in the middle of the system than on the edges, the systems takes a giant U-shape as the ocean applies more pressure to the center. This turns the system into a sort of net, with plastic accumulating in the center of the U. The system also includes solar-powered lights, anti-collision systems, cameras, sensors, and satellites, allowing it to protect other vessels and communicate its position and gather performance data. Finally, every 4-6 weeks, the “garbage truck of the ocean” will come by to empty the system.The plastic can then be taken to land and recycled. (4)
The ultimate goal of the Ocean Cleanup is to clean up 50% of the patch in five years, and 90% by 2040. The data collected from System 001 will be used to improve upon the design before launching a fleet of 60 units in a year and a half. While the system seems like a smart solution to a pressing problem, it is not without critics. Some scientists worry about the dangers it may pose to the wildlife of the ocean. Others worry that it will not capture the majority of the ocean plastic, as bits called “microplastic” are smaller than half a centimeter. In addition, many also believe it would be better for us to put our resources towards fixing the root of the problem – the amount of plastic we throw out every year. Some worry that by placing too much emphasis on the cleanup, we will ignore about stopping the plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place. (5)
Whether or not this project works remains to be seen as System 001 begins its journey towards a cleaner ocean.
- Rice, Doyle. “Where Did the Trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Come from? How Do We Stop It?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 7 Sept. 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/tech/science/2018/09/07/great-pacific-garbage-patch-where-did-all-trash-come/1133838002/.
- Ocean Cleanup. “How It All Began.” The Ocean Cleanup, www.theoceancleanup.com/milestones/how-it-all-began/.
- Ocean Cleanup. “Milestones.” The Ocean Cleanup, www.theoceancleanup.com/milestones/.
- Kart, Jeff. “The Ocean Cleanup Is Starting, Aims To Cut Garbage Patch By 90% By 2040.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 29 Aug. 2018, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffkart/2018/08/28/the-ocean-cleanup-is-starting-aims-to-cut-garbage-patch-by-90-by-2040/#681d6cc8253e.
- Gramling, Carolyn. “A Massive Net Is Being Deployed to Pick up Plastic in the Pacific.” Science News, Society for Science & the Public, 8 Sept. 2018, http://www.sciencenews.org/article/massive-net-being-deployed-pick-plastic-pacific.