Five years ago, an 18-year-old Dutch teenager with long, shaggy hair dreamed up something very simple that might get us out of a very large bind. Simple in concept, that is—the actual reality of building his dream was a monumental feat. And after five years of hurdles, nay-sayers, and fundraising, on September 8th, Boyan Slat finally weighed the anchor on his Ocean Cleanup Array, a floating boom system designed to clean up an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of floating plastic in the ocean.
“After five years of research, engineering, and testing, we launched the world’s first ocean cleanup system from San Francisco Bay, marking the start of the cleanup,” the Ocean Cleanup announced. “The system is now on its way to an intermediary test stop, 250-350 nautical miles offshore for a 2-week trial before continuing its journey toward the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 1,200 nautical miles offshore, to start the cleanup.”
It’s been a long road for the Ocean Cleanup team. It was 2013 when Slat founded the non-profit that’s focused on “developing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic.” The design is a simple one: create a drifting coastline in the middle of the ocean. “The system consists of a 600-meter-long floater that sits at the surface of the water and a tapered 3-meter-deep skirt attached below,” the Ocean Cleanup’s website explains. “The floater provides buoyancy to the system and prevents plastic from flowing over it, while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath.”
The vast swathes of plastic in the ocean accumulate in patches brought together by a global system of currents known as ocean gyres. Although the garbage patches have long been described as “islands”, in reality, they’re simply large areas where the concentration of plastic is much higher. Much of the debris floats just beneath the surface, which makes getting accurate assessments of the amount of plastic a difficult task. By working with the currents, the Ocean Cleanup array gathers plastic, which is then carted away by a floating dump truck for recycling. If it works, the team expects to gather about half of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage patch over the course of the next five years.
The world’s first ocean cleanup system was launched from the San Francisco Bay. All told, it cost in the neighborhood of $20 million— a hefty price tag that is well worth the money… if it works. It’s expected to start gathering trash some time in mid-October. Slat’s idea, however, does have its detractors. “Focusing clean-up at those gyres, in the opinion of most of the scientific community, is a waste of effort,” marine biologist Jan van Franeker of Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands told Science. “It’s a lot of money to reduce something that disappears in 10 to 20 years, if you stop the input.”
Placing trash collectors in rivers might be a more efficient way of stopping the flow of plastic with the added benefit of reducing the risk to marine life. Recent computer simulations seem to back that up. According to a study in Environmental Research Letters, garbage collectors near shore in China and Indonesia–two of the biggest offenders–might be a better option.
And there’s another problem, too. There’s a good chance that Slat’s project could end up being disastrous for marine life, such as plankton. Slat’s team believes that the floating netting isn’t deep enough to have any real effect of wildlife, and a downward current will help direct anything swimming under it. So while it remains to be seen just how well the Ocean Cleanup’s idea will work, it is encouraging to see such a massive undertaking finally getting underway.