Back in 2016, Geographical spoke to The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organisation, founded in 2013 by Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat when he was just a teenager. Its mission is to develop ‘advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic’. At that time the team were conducting a reconnaissance flight over the North Pacific to discover the true size of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ – a vast collection of marine debris, situated between Hawai‘i and California, where rubbish accumulates due to circulating ocean currents called gyres. The exact amount of plastic in the patch isn’t known, but one 2018 study reported 79,000 tons of plastic debris in the area.
In 2016, The Ocean Cleanup’s aim was to design ‘a network of extremely long floating barriers that will remain stationary in the water, enabling the ocean to concentrate the plastic using its own currents.’ Now, after five years of research, engineering and testing, it has launched System 001, a 600-metre-long floating barrier with a tapered three-metre-deep skirt attached below. The system has been placed in a ‘U’ shape off the coast of San Francisco Bay where it will remain for a two-week trial period. All going well, the team will then tow the system out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, another 1,000 nautical miles offshore.
Unlike the original design, which centred on a stationary structure, this iteration of the cleanup system moves with the current. The theory is that because the floating barrier sits just above the water surface, while the plastic lies just beneath it, natural forces will cause the system to move faster than the plastic, catching it as it floats by. Once enough plastic has accumulated in the centre of the barrier it can be collected by ship. The Ocean Cleanup says its models show that a full-scale roll-out (a fleet of approximately 60 systems) could clean 50 per cent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years.
However, not everyone applauds The Ocean Cleanup’s work. System 001 is a high cost venture (the total price tag is reportedly around €21million). Some experts, such as Marcus Eriksen, an environmental scientist and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, and veteran environmental journalist Chris Clarke, have argued that the focus should be prevention – keeping the plastic out of the water in the first place. Others, such as oceanographers Doctor Kim Martini and Doctor Miriam Goldstein, who produced a review of Ocean Cleanup’s feasibility study, argue that the group hasn’t sufficiently analysed the impact on wildlife, referring to ‘substantial bycatch and mortality’. Their fears were echoed by George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy in an interview with the New York Times.
Martini and Goldstein also point to the fact that plastic has been detected much deeper than the system can penetrate, while Clarke argues that much of the plastic in a gyre ends up being washed up on beaches, where it can be collected more easily and cheaply. There is also the issue that the system won’t be able to capture microplastics, considered the most dangerous and most prolific form of ocean plastic pollution (more than 92 per cent according to one study by the 5 Gyres Institute).
Lonneke Holierhoek, COO of The Ocean Cleanup accepts that the organisation still has lessons to learn. ‘It’s a beta-type version that we expect to maximise our learning,’ she says. ‘It’s the first time we can actually test it to full-scale, in an environment with real sea conditions as well as real floating plastic, which we haven’t been able to do before.’ Holierhoek, who has two decades experience in marine civil engineering (something she says the Dutch are pretty good at), joined the organisation last year to oversee the final design, purchase of materials, assembly and installation of the system. She acknowledges that this type of technology isn’t the only solution to ocean plastic but believes wholeheartedly that it is one of them. ‘You have to prevent the problem from getting worse, so prevention is a big thing,’ she says. ‘But second to that, we also need to clean up what’s already out there. We’ve come up with a solution because even if we stop the influx today there’s still a lot of debris that’s causing serious and real harm to marine life and just waiting won’t make it disappear.’
Despite the critics, The Ocean Cleanup has not been put off its mission and neither, it seems, have its backers. The group has received funding from some big-name investors, including Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, and American billionaires Marc and Lynne Benioff. Holierhoek is confident that more funding will be forthcoming when the group decides to scale-up and create more systems. ‘When we’ve learnt what we need to from a year of operation of this system, we will implement it to create an even better design and start deploying that,’ she says. ‘Then we will scale up pretty quickly. We are confident that we can achieve funding, once we have proved that the concept works.’
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