There are dreamers and there are doers. Boyan Slat of the Netherlands is both. 5 years ago at the age of 18, he founded The Ocean Cleanup, an organization dedicated to removing plastic debris from the oceans of the world. To date, it has raised $20 million in funding, which has been used to create 5 prototypes and more than 270 models of systems it hopes will begin cleaning up plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
The latest version is named Wilson, in honor of the volleyball that became part of the adventure in the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. Wilson is composed of 60 floating booms joined together in a U shape. Each boom has a 10-foot deep skirt attached to it that will collect plastic pieces larger than 1 centimeter in size, according to a report in The Guardian.
Wilson has been launched in San Francisco Bay and will be towed 250 miles out to sea where it will be tested for two weeks before beginning its mission. The entire system will be powered by the same currents that converge to create the Pacific Gyre, otherwise known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an area three times the size of France. Wilson will be equipped with location broadcasting technology to keep ships from running into it.
A team from The Ocean Cleanup will remove the trash collected every 6 weeks and transport it back to The Netherlands for recycling. The team hopes its system will remove 50% of the floating plastic in the Pacific Gyre within 5 years. It predicts it could clean up 90% of ocean plastic debris by 2040.
A recent study estimates there are 1.8 trillion pieces of floating plastic in the Pacific Gyre weighing a total of 80,000 tons. Oceanographer Laurent Lebreton tells The Guardian, “Moving with wind and currents in the same way plastic does, the barrier should self-adjust once deployed. It will trap large debris before it can break down into harmful microplastics. Some 92% of plastic in the region is made up of pieces larger than 5 millimeters, so that is our focus.”
A spokesperson for Greenpeace says, “Exploring new ideas and technologies to clean up ocean pollution is laudable and [the project] may even succeed in removing at least some of the waste. But prevention is far better than cure and in order to tackle the pollution crisis, corporations must stop producing so much plastic.”
Rick Stafford, a professor of marine biology and conservation at Bournemouth University, offers this qualified endorsement. “It could remove a lot of large plastics from the ocean, which is positive as long as it will not harm sea life.” The skirt that hangs beneath the floating booms is designed not to entangle marine life, but Stafford warns a degree of by-catch is inevitable.
“Fish such as tuna could get caught up in the debris. Or if turtles get pushed up into the skirt there is a chance they will end up eating the plastic.” He adds, “My biggest concern is that providing a potential technological solution could make us feel like we have dealt with the plastics problem — whereas in reality we need strong policy and legislation to ban disposable plastics.”
Lonneke Holierhoek, CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, points out, “Plankton and different types of marine life are already affected by the floating debris out there. We will work with the knowledge we gain to minimize any impact. We feel a sense of urgency to start cleaning up and to learn how our ideas will work in reality. But this is by no means the end of the process. We believe we can scale up pretty quickly and have a full fleet of systems in the north Pacific by 2021.”
Better Management Of Single Use Plastic
Slowly, the world is awakening to the harm caused by throwing away plastic, especially single use cups, plates, utensils, and straws. In the UK, a new plan would place a refundable deposit on all single use plastic containers. Many people are saying “No thanks” to plastic bags at retail stores and bringing their own straws with them to restaurants. The use of reusable drink containers is rising, spurred in part by recent reports that corporations crank out more than one million single use plastic bottles every minute. Demand for biodegradable and recyclable plastic is expect to surge in coming years as more people become aware of the damage that humans and their profligate ways creates.
As much as we enjoy lambasting corporations for promoting a throwaway lifestyle, it is us who make the choices that enable such behavior. It is time to stop contributing to the problem and become part of the solution. Taking responsibility for our personal conduct is something all of us can do to reduce the tsunami of discarded plastic that threatens to overwhelm us.