The Ocean Cleanup Is Starting, Aims To Cut Garbage Patch By 90% By 2040
A massive cleanup of plastic in the seas will begin in the Pacific Ocean, by way of Alameda, California. The Ocean Cleanup, an effort that’s been five years in the making, plans to launch its beta cleanup system, a 600-meter (almost 2,000-foot) long floater that can collect about five tons of ocean plastic per month.
It’s a start. The launch date is September 8, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch being targeted is more than 1,000 nautical miles from the launch point and on the move.
The Ocean Cleanup plans to monitor the performance of the beta, called System 001, and have an improved fleet of 60 more units skimming the ocean for plastics in about a year a half. The ultimate goal of the project, founded by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat when he was 18, is to clean up 50% of the patch in five years, with a 90% reduction by 2040.
The organization will take time to learn lessons from System 001, but “we are in a big hurry,” said Lonneke Holierhoek, chief operating officer at The Ocean Cleanup. “We really see the urgency in starting the cleanup because there’s so much harm that could happen with this plastic that’s floating out there.”
You’ve probably heard the latest stunning study on ocean plastic: By 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish, according to the World Economic Forum.
Pathways include “river and atmospheric transport, beach littering and directly at sea via aquaculture, shipping and fishing activities,” according to findings published in Nature Communications.
“Research shows the majority of plastic by mass is currently in the larger debris,” as noted on The Ocean Cleanup website. “By removing the plastic while most of it is still large, we prevent it from breaking down into dangerous microplastics” that can absorb toxic substances and travel up the food chain.
The total cost of System 001 is about 21 million euros ($24.6 million U.S.), according to a rep for startup. That includes design, development, production, assembly and monitoring during the first year of operation.
The company will welcome corporations and philanthropists to sponsor their own cleanup system in coming years, the rep says. These systems will sport a sponsor logo and related app that follows the unit’s course through the gyre and shows how much plastic has been collected.
Reusing Ocean Plastic
Once the scale-up is complete and the fleet of 60 is in place, the organization plans to continue operations with help from the proceeds of recycled plastic. Plans are to make products using ocean plastic, so people can support the cleanup that way.
System 001 sits at the surface of the water, with a 3-meter (10-foot) deep skirt attached below.
The floater keeps plastics from flowing over the system, while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath. System 001 will likely need to be emptied every four to six weeks, the organization estimates, to make room for more plastic and keep it from attracting marine life. The overall fleet would need to collect about 14,000 tons per year to make the goal.
The system takes advantage of natural oceanic forces to catch and concentrate the plastic.
You might liken it to one of those self-directing pool cleaners, on a larger scale. Or a big Roomba cleaning robot.
“We try and explain it sometimes like a leaf blower,” Holierhoek said. In this case, the plastic is scattered like leaves, even in the garbage patch. “Having to pick up these pieces one-by-one would be very time-consuming,” she said. But corraling plastic with the cleanup system allows it to be collected more effectively and efficiently.
“For the future, we think we may need an even bigger size,” Holierhoek said.
In the meantime, with System 001, there are numerous sub-goals, such as measurements and inspections to monitor the beta’s behavior or potential wear and tear, and collecting information on waves and climate.
“If we can improve the quality of those estimates, then we can improve our engineering for any follow-up systems,” she said.
A System 002 will need to undergo and pass additional tests before the fleet is deployed.
Skimming the Surface?
The project is not without its critics, who say The Ocean Cleanup is literally skimming the surface of the problem. There are, after all, five garbage patches out there. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest.
The organization has responded to those concerns pretty extensively. In short, this isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s a pretty good weapon against an environmental threat.
Yes, there five garbage patches out there. Yes, there is still plastic coming into the system every day.
“Generally, the large problems of the world are quite often more complicated than it looks,” Holierhoek said. “Also, this problem is not as simple as ‘Let’s just clean it up in the ocean and the problem goes away.’
“There needs to be changes. We have contributed to this problem since the 1950s, as humanity. What is out there is out there. If no one goes and gets it, it will stay out there.”
She adds, “I’m convinced our project does give hope, not false hope. … We are solving a serious environmental problem with the cleanup. It also shows we don’t have to give up.”