There are currently 5 known plastic accumulation zones or “garbage patches” littered across our world’s oceans and the largest, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is located just off my home coast. The patch, roughly twice the size of Texas, continues to grow and is floating about 1,200 nautical miles from the California coast, halfway to Hawaii.
The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization based out of the Netherlands that promises to rid our oceans of these plastic patches by the year 2050 via floating collection systems that harness the power of the ocean’s currents to move about the surface, trapping plastic along the way.
On September 8th, 2018 they launched the very first plastic collection system using a brilliant idea that was conceptualized by an 18 year old Aerospace Engineering student back in 2013. Boyan Slat, now the CEO and Founder, eagerly awaits as his team of over 80 engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modelers work to gather critical data from the maiden voyage to prove this technology will work to save our oceans.
We reached out and sent them a few questions to get some insight into how they got here, what they have learned and what the future holds for The Ocean Cleanup.
What has The Ocean Cleanup learned during the Pacific Trials?
There were many tests performed between the launch and the start of The Ocean Cleanup. The team focused on five main checkpoints that needed to be confirmed before The Ocean Cleanup felt confident to proceed the journey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:
1. U-shape installation
2. Sufficient speed through water
3. Ability to reorient when wind/wave direction changes
4. Effective span in steady state
5. No significant damage by the end of the test
These tests were successful and the team was able to check every criterium before moving on to the GPGP, where the system is now deployed.
I understand you have gone through some extensive testing but the ocean can be a cruel environment. What are your biggest fears with your system being implemented on the ocean?
As this is the first system of its kind, there are a number of scenario´s The Ocean Cleanup is taking into account. The system is designed to survive storms of extraordinary power, though the biggest fear is that the plastic won´t stay in the system when the real rough weather hits the system.
Recycling plastic you collect and turning the material into something companies can use for commerce is a great idea! Can you tell us more about that? Will the material be more affordable to businesses than alternatives?
The plastic will most likely not be more affordable than virgin plastics, as it will have to go through extensive production. But there are a large number of investors and interested parties that want to use our plastic to produce durable, sustainable products. The plastic we can retrieve is of surprisingly high quality for a product which has been out in the ocean for that long, which means that the recycled plastic can be used for a great number of projects and products.
Your systems are simple and scalable. But getting this far must have required a massive amount of cooperation and coordination. Can you talk at all about the people who have helped you along the way?
The Ocean Cleanup has had a lot of support from a lot of people. It is not just people who offer their time and expertise as volunteers or the people providing the capital. Maersk for example is the company that offered us the use of one of their vessels so the system can actually reach the GPGP. There would be too many people to thank, but it is safe to say that there has been a lot of support from a lot of different people, governments and sectors.
A full-scale deployment of your systems is estimated to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every 5 years. How much time do you seeing passing before full-scale deployment?
Full-scale deployment, or the scaling up of the cleanup, will start next year after data from this first system is analysed. We are planning to launch the 60 systems needed to clean the GPGP within two years, and after that we will be looking to expand to the other plastic concentration sites around the world. After fleets of systems are deployed into every area, combined with source reduction, The Ocean Cleanup projects should be able to remove 90% of ocean plastic by 2040.
How can we help?
Besides monetary support, your relevant knowledge and skills may be a very welcome addition to The Ocean Cleanup. Our work requires not only scientific and technical expertise, but also assistance with legal, commercial and policy matters. If you would like to get actively involved in our work, please visit the Careers page to see our current open positions.
You can also help us by sharing our story. Although the awareness for plastic pollution is growing rapidly, there are still many who are not aware. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube or Facebook for updates on our progress and feel free to share our content. Our project would never have been possible in the first place without the internet, and the power of the crowd.
All images in this post are property of The Ocean Cleanup