The largest ocean clean-up in history was started by a 16-year old with an idea

December 30, 2018

The Ocean Cleanup

Have you heard of The Ocean Cleanup system, phase 1 of which launched from San Francisco Bay into the North Pacific on 8 September this year?

I think we've all heard about the appalling state of the planet's oceans - littered with over 5 trillion pieces of plastic, destroying the ocean's ecosystems, threatening marine life, damaging economies and polluting food chains. With a further 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic estimated to be entering the ocean each year.

But, did you know that a clean-up is underway?  What The Ocean Cleanup ( a non-profit organisation based out of  Rotterdam) are are doing is unprecedented. There has never been a cleanup system of this magnitude ever deployed in the ocean.

It started when a 16-year-old (Boyan Slat) was scuba diving in Greece and saw more plastic than fish.  He researched the plastic pollution problem, devoted his high school science project to better understanding the issues, and gave his first TED talk in 2012 after he graduated. 

Apparently, there are 5 major plastic accumulation zones in the world where ocean currents converge. These accumulation zones are commonly called "garbage patches", where the plastic gradually breaks down into microplastics, but never goes away.

The largest of these garbage patches is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) located between Hawaii and California.  The GPGP covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas (or three times the size of France).  It is thought that there are at least 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic (250 pieces for every human in the world)  in the patch that weigh an estimated 80,000 tonnes (a weight equivalent to 500 Jumbo Jets). 

Boyan realised that a cleanup using vessels and nets would take thousands of years, cost tens of billions of dollars, be harmful to sea life and lead to large amounts of carbon emissions.

After experimenting with ideas and simple tests, Boyan came up with the idea to develop a passive concentration system. He envisioned using the ocean currents to his advantage, and let them be the driving force behind catching and concentrating the plastic.

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 floater provides buoyancy to the system and prevents plastic from flowing over it, while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath. As the system moves through the water, the plastic continues to collect within the boundaries of the U-shaped system.

By deploying a fleet of systems, The Ocean Cleanup (with Boyan as the CEO) has estimated to be able to remove 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just 5 years’ time. The concentrated plastic will be brought back to shore for recycling and sold to B2C companies. The revenue gained will help fund the cleanup expansion to the other four ocean 'garbage patches'.

On 8 September 2018, The Ocean Cleanup launched its first cleanup system from San Francisco Bay, into the North Pacific. To stay up-to-date on its progress, head to their website. 

Thank you to Zak Noyle for the photo taken in Java.