The world's first system designed to rid the oceans of plastic pollution will be deployed near Japan in 2016, with the aim of eventually capturing half of the plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a large concentration of marine debris located between Hawaii and California.
Boyan Slat, the 20-year-old Dutch CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, an organization dedicated to cleaning the world’s oceans, designed the system dubbed The Ocean Cleanup Array.
“I’ve always been interested in technology, and I was launching rockets at 12 years old,” Slat said. “Eventually I started studying aerospace engineering, but I dropped out to try to develop this ocean clean up idea.”
He said his inspiration for the organization came after a diving holiday in Greece where he realized he was coming across more plastic bags than fish.
“I wondered, ‘Why can’t we clean this up?’” Slat said.
Plastic debris, most of it in the form of tiny beads known as microplastics, can be found on up to 88 percent of the surface of all five oceans, according to a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Because of swirling ocean currents, known as gyres, this plastic pollution has become concentrated in certain areas.
In other cases, ocean currents send plastic pollution toward certain islands or coastal areas in greater concentration than others. One such area is the Japanese island of Tsushima.
“The reason we picked that location is because the current and wave conditions are very favorable for our tests, and there really is a lot of plastic,” Slat said. “The island where we performed the test sees 30,000 cubic meters of trash wash ashore per year.”
So much plastic washes up on Tsushima’s shores that both the Japanese government and the island’s residents have agreed to work with The Ocean Cleanup on its pilot project planned for 2016.
The Ocean Cleanup Array — based on research by a team of 100 scientists and engineers and funded by a crowd-funding campaign — is a long, floating barrier that is moored to the seabed in an area that plastic debris gathers due to ocean currents, Slat said. As currents move plastic trash toward the area, the barrier blocks and gathers it onto a collection platform.
The array will span over 1 mile, making it the longest floating structure ever deployed in the ocean, according to a press release by The Ocean Cleanup.
The system works because most plastic trash floating in the ocean is found in the top two meters of the water, Slat discovered after leading four expeditions in different ocean locations to measure how deep the plastic could be found.
The array will be operational for two years, catching plastic before it reaches the shores of Tsushima, which is currently researching whether it can use the material for an energy source.
If the pilot project is successful, The Ocean Cleanup will begin a series of deployments of arrays of increasing scale, Slat said.
Within five years, the organization aims to deploy a 62-mile-long array that will be capable of capturing about half of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Slat said. According to a feasibility study conducted by the team of 100 scientists and engineers working with Slat, the giant array will be able to do that over 10 years.
Critics argue that prevention and interception — stopping the plastic trash before it reaches waterways and oceans — is a more sustainable way to stop ocean pollution.
Tony Haymet, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego, said peer-reviewed studies from his former students’ 2009 SEAPLEX expedition showed that nearly all plastic pollution in the oceans is in microplastic form — “smaller than the size of about half a little finger nail.”
No system is able to extract the microplastic, Haymet said in previous comments.
“As far as I know — sadly — this remains true today,” Haymet said. “It’s a horribly tricky issue.”
Besides being hard to filter, microplastic — either from microbeads in popular beauty products or the broken down pieces of larger plastic items — gets into the stomachs of small fish, which are then eaten by medium-size fish, and on up the food chain, Haymet said.
In order to better the world’s understanding of the scale and size of plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean, The Ocean Cleanup will carry out a “mega expedition” in August to measure the amount of trash found in the ocean between California and Hawaii.
“Up to 50 vessels will go to the Patch, thereby becoming the largest research expedition in history,” Slat said. The ships will stay there for about three weeks, taking measurements of the amount and size of plastic contained in the area.
“In that period we will take more measurements [of the Patch] than in the past 40 years combined,” Slat said. The Ocean Cleanup has recruiters throughout the U.S. looking for people with boats to join the expedition. They already have 15 confirmed, and a little over two months until the trip begins.
“It’s 63 days to go, so the pressure is on,” Slat said.