Cleaning Up the Oceans’ Plastic

The Ocean Cleanup making a difference
Source: GoPro

Through industrialisation, modernisation and technology, the human race has been polluting natural environments for hundreds of years. There are far too many examples of this, and we are continuously learning about the price we might have to pay, in the form of serious geological disasters.

Our oceans have been hit very badly, with the World Economic Forum recently predicting that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Around 12.7 tonnes of the stuff are washed into the sea every year, where it seriously disrupts ecosystems, chokes marine life, damages shorelines and wrecks all kinds of other havoc.

The good news is that there are initiatives that are trying to improve the situation. One such organisation is The Ocean Cleanup (TOC). This Dutch NGO was founded by Boyan Slat in 2013, when he was just 18. Their ambitious goal is to use advanced technologies to remove plastic from the world’s oceans. And they are closer than ever to their first sojourn into doing just that.

Eliminating Pacific Garbage

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which floats on the currents between Hawaii and California and is roughly twice the size of France, is as terrible (in the true sense of the word) as it sounds. Sadly it is not the only garbage patch in our oceans (there are five) but it is the largest of these literal vortexes of trash.

TOC aims to have removed 90% of it by 2040, using a system of floating booms and support vessels. Essentially, natural currents will be used to corral the plastic into a system that is shallow enough (in theory, though this remains to be seen) to allow fish to swim underneath it and exist as normal.

The plastic will then be collected and recycled, creating new products that can be bought to support TOC. Collecting the material while it is still in large pieces is important, because once it has broken down into microplastic particles it can absorb toxic substances, and then travel up the food chain. So time is definitely of the essence here.

An ocean full of trash
Source: Maryna Uchuvatova

The Trial Phase Has Begun

TOC has just launched System 001 from San Francisco Bay, as a test-run before a full fleet is deployed. Being much closer to the shore, it will be easier to monitor, make adjustments, and test the floating boom system before heading off to the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific.

The tests to be conducted include how easy the floating system is to assemble and get into place, how fast the vessels move and the ability of the system to right and re-orientate itself when there are changes in the wind or currents.

If System 001’s objectives are achieved, System 002 will set sail to undergo more assessments. When everything’s approved, a fleet of 60 Systems will head off on the clean-up mission. The hope is that this is just the beginning, and that other Garbage Patches can be tackled in the future.

Time on System 001 is expected to consist of long periods where nothing really happens, along with a few short bursts of excitement. But it is very necessary, and crewmembers will just have to keep themselves entertained by reading, playing at a casino online, or engaging in some other pastime.

Because although we need to be moving quickly, TOC is also eager to not make any mistakes. The entire project costs more than 21 million euros, so any errors would be financially as well as environmentally costly. And with Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Peter Theil (PayPal’s co-founder) and Marc Benioff (Chief Executive of Salesforce.com) lending support, the pressure is even greater.