The Great Ocean Cleanup

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There’s a martial arts technique that involves using opponents’ own momentum against them. Will it work on trash in the ocean?

A young Dutch inventor has devised an elaborate system for removing plastic debris from the Pacific Garbage Patch and other places; his ambitious goal is to gather and recycle half the plastic in the Garbage Patch within five years. In this article, he describes the process of allowing ocean currents to direct the trash into a trap of sorts that he’s designed. “I thought, ‘Why don’t you use those forces of the ocean to your advantage?’ Working with nature instead of trying to fight it.”

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The inventor, Boyan Slat, was inspired to clean up the oceans on a scuba diving trip when he was 16 years old, when he found under the water “more plastic bags than fish.” That was nearly eight years ago. In the interval, he went to college to study aerospace engineering, dropped out, formed a startup company, and raised $40 million to fund his project. As the article describes, the plan involves “multiple ‘arrays,’ each consisting of a pipe-shaped float—sixth-tenths of a mile to a mile in length—with a 10-foot-tall screen of impermeable synthetic textile hanging beneath the surface. The crescent-shaped screens are supposed to allow sea life to swim under or around. A drift anchor, dragging in deeper and slower sub-surface currents, is intended to slow the screen enough for it to trap plastic forced into the crescent by the faster currents along the surface. A ship would then be dispatched every few weeks to scoop up the waste and deliver it to a recycling center.”

A team of 70 people has worked to assemble prototypes of Slat’s design, one of which will be released off the California coast sometime before Labor Day and towed about 800 miles toward the Garbage Patch. Once there, it will need no external source of energy other than solar power for the lights and other instruments. If this trial run succeeds, the startup team hopes to build and deploy 60 more of the devices between Hawaii and California in the next few years. Each one will cost about $6 million to build and operate, so Slat needs to raise $360 million. He hopes that the sale of recycled plastic will fund the venture in the long term.

The device captures mainly larger pieces of plastic, which, left in the ocean, would eventually break down into microplastics that could be ingested by fish and other animals.

Environmentalists who have reviewed the plan have a number of questions and objections. Some say the solution to the plastic problem lies not so much in cleaning up what’s out there but rather in cutting off the supply at the source, such as the bans on plastic bags and growing movements for banning plastic straws in many cities. Others worry that the large devices will interfere with aquatic creatures or with ships, or that they might break apart during storms and contribute to the debris field themselves. Slat and his team think they’ve anticipated and can avoid most of these problems.

The inventor himself won’t see the process in action, though. “I get seasick,” he explains; he’ll be monitoring the progress of the device from dry land. SW_bug_web

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  1. While I do not know if it will work or not. He is trying to do something and will learn something through this adventure. If only one is deployed and one boat load of plastic is collected, it is more than others are doing. Should the endeavor be successful, others will step forward and the work will be done faster. Slowing the supply of the plastics may reduce the future collection, but the plastic there still needs to be collected. I, for one, hope he and the venture is successful.

  2. Andy is right on! Collecting what is on our oceans is a perfect sampling of global sources. It can provide the needed data to identify and prioritize source elimination. There are to many emotion/bias based opinions. We are out of time and there are no major sources of money. Boyan Slat’s innovation leadership is a necessary start-point for global cultural change regarding waste management.

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