If you’ve been paying attention to the environmental plight of the ocean, you have likely heard stories about the Great Garbage Patch of the Pacific. This swirling vortex of marine debris particles—primarily consisting of microplastics and chemical sludge—was recently discovered around 1985 by some researchers in Alaska. These high concentrations of human-generated waste have created a massive gyre in the central northern part of the Pacific Ocean and reached over a (still relatively unknown) tract of open sea. Not only is the notion of such marine pollution disconcerting, it is also threatening the livelihood of the ecosystem and the food chain of all animals, including humans. Although it is believed the patch formed gradually as a result of human negligence, the ocean currents have since gathered it into a staggeringly big problem. But finally, it seems the word is ready to take on the remarkable challenge of cleaning it up.
Who’s the Eco-Hero?
Although a solution in some form or another has always been in production, few people have stepped forward and claimed the ability to make it happen. But with the introduction of Dutch foundation The Ocean Cleanup, it seems the wait might be over. The company recently announced they will begin their cleanup of the floating blight within the year, two years ahead of schedule.
While scuba diving in Greece at age 16, the company’s mastermind, Boyan Slat, observed more plastic bags floating among the reefs than actual fish. As a result, he decided to dedicate himself to cleaning up the oceans of the world by formulating a workable strategy and enlisting as many rich philanthropists as possible, like those from Salesforce and PayPal. First presenting the idea for a high school project, the young entrepreneur has continued his focus on managing the waste of the ocean. Consequently, his foundation has received $21.7 million in donations, finally giving him the chance to try out his innovative method. He believes this effort may likely clean up almost 50 percent of the toxic garbage patch within a mere five years’ time.
The system is comprised of continuous tubes made of extremely durable plastic attached to a screen that drifts below, catching the debris just below the surface. In the past, researchers have proposed similar designs of large nets, but they have always proved harmful to the existing ecology. This screen, however, is designed to capture things larger than one centimeter in size, making it permeable to most organisms. Originally, they had thought to attach the giant screen to the ocean floor using the help of an oil rig; however, it was discovered to be easier and more efficient to tether the system to floats beneath the surface of the water. The tubes themselves will function much like a coastline barrier, trapping the noxious soup as it floats by. Because these barriers are free-floating, much like the microplastics themselves, they have the ability to blend in with the movement of the ocean and become part of the concentrated area of trash. This makes them about 50 percent more efficient than other types of rooted marine nets. And instead of instituting a 60-mile screen, the group has settled on a more the more aggressive approach of 50 smaller net systems, all measuring around .6 miles in length.
But the nets themselves do not actually capture particles as small as many microplastics. Instead, the barriers scoop up and contain bigger pieces of debris like rebar, fishing nets, crates, and large plastic items. In turn, this waste does not have the opportunity to break down and join the already existing gyre of tiny debris. Slat acknowledges that there will always be some plastic in the ocean, as much of it is simply too small to capture; however, he does not let this realization discourage his efforts to address as much marine waste as possible. In his opinion, the most important thing is to do something, even if it addresses only part of the larger problem.
Although this type of solution is important, it does not come cheap. Originally, Slat expected the clean-up plan to cost about $320 million over 10 years, but his recent shift in methodology suggests he will be able to do it at half the cost and significantly less time. According to the innovative group, the promising nets should be deployed as early as January 2018.