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Can this 20 million dollar project really save our oceans?
Posted on 07/03/2019

EnvironmentUnited States of America

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About 8 million metric tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean annually. There are even shocking predictions that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish. A problem on this scale requires serious intervention and that's where the Ocean Cleanup project comes in.

Garbage patches in the ocean

Garbage patches in the ocean
Nadezhda Zima/123RF

Large islands of waste are accumulating in the seas and oceans around the world due to plastics. These islands are known as garbage patches and once plastic is in these patches, it can't go away by itself. Currently around the globe, there are five ocean garbage patches. The largest of these patches is the Great Pacific garbage patch, located between Hawaii and California. It's so large that it's actually the same size as the state of Texas. Needless to say, if these patches are left unattended, it will impact every aspect of human life, from our health to our economies. In order to tackle this issue, the Ocean Cleanup foundation was set up in 2013.

What is the Ocean Cleanup?

What is the Ocean Cleanup?
Dmitry Shishkin/123RF

The Ocean Cleanup is a non-government engineering environmental organization based in the Netherlands. The foundation's CEO, Boyan Slat, is a Dutch inventor and entrepreneur with a passion for helping get rid of plastic pollution. This interest was sparked when he was just 16 years old during a diving expedition in Greece, where he came across more plastic than fish in the ocean. During his high school years, he chose to devote a project to investigating the worldwide issue of plastic pollution and why it was considered impossible to clean up. Of course, covering the vast area of where plastic has spread poses not only a colossal challenge that would not only take years to achieve, but would also cost billions of dollars to achieve. He then proposed to create a passive system whereby ocean currents could be used to our advantage for helping clean the ocean of plastic. Out of this, the Ocean Clean-Up foundation was born.

Using ocean currents to save our planet

Using ocean currents to save our planet

The Ocean Cleanup is focused on developing a passive system that uses natural oceanic forces to catch and concentrate the plastic. The system (also called Wilson or System 001) is stabilized in the water with a floating anchor and its purpose is to concentrate the waste and then remove it with the help of boats. The barrier that is in place then acts in accordance with the natural elements of the wind, sun and waves, the same forces that move the plastic into concentrated areas. The foundation's CEO explained that the idea behind it was to have a difference in speed between the system and the plastic so that the system acts faster allowing the plastic to be collected. The more cleanup systems in use, the more plastics will be collected. A computation model has shown that full-scale deployment will lead to a 50% reduction of the Great Pacific Garbage patch in five years.

A more sustainable future?

But what happens once the plastic is collecteD? The Ocean Cleanup is also set to investigate how plastic can be reused once its back on land. The initial work that's been started on ocean plastic recycling shows that it can actually be turned into high quality, everyday-use products. The Ocean Cleanup website states that it's even possible to make phones, chairs and sunglasses from plastic retrieved from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Not all has been smooth sailing

Although the theory and ideas behind the clean up sound great and have had a lot of support and backing such as a 20 million dollar investment, in actuality things haven't gone exactly to plan. In fact, after four weeks of being in operation, the CEO reported that while the U-shaped device was collecting plastic, it was then losing it. Boyan Slat told reporters that the slow speed of the 600 meter solar-powered barrier meant that it was unable to hold onto the plastics, but a team of experts are working on a potential fix. Slat chalked the failure up to the tricky conditions of the ocean and the innovative nature of the project; an environmental clean up of this scale has never been done before. He asserted that it would take a few tries before a system could be up and working effectively to achieve its goal.

Looking forward

The Ocean Cleanup certainly hasn't let this setback get in the way of their vision of a cleaner ocean. Since the problems surfaced, Slat has called for a team of engineers to set out to work in widening the span of the floating barrier so that it catches more wind and waves and can go faster. There is also a great amount of optimism behind Slat's work. Researchers claim that the project could remove up to 50% of plastics within the area.

However, like most new projects there are also those who have challenged the idea. Some scientists say that the barrier could pose a threat to marine life. Miriam Goldstein, the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress, claimed that even if the Ocean Cleanup started to collect plastic, there are still concerns about the impact it would have on ecosystems, especially if the project is using up to 60 devices as Slat wishes. She believes the project did not seriously address the effects that these large scale structures can have on endangered animals such as sea turtles or tuna.

Others claim that the project would be more beneficial if it was to target the root cause of the plastic waste. Slat responded in agreement, but pressed that something needs to be done about the tons of dangerous microplastics currently in the ocean. The mission continues to date, and the official Twitter account of the project has reached nearly 100,000 followers. If you are interested, their Twitter account is where you can find the latest updates about how this organization is coming along trying to accomplish what could be the world's greatest achievement in the efforts of protecting our planet.

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