Location: Delft, The Netherlands
Out in the middle of the oceans something terrifying is happening: tracts of water that few humans have physically visited have managed to be altered by civilization, marred by plastic debris that somehow escaped regular waste channels. This trash is trapped by giant, swirling currents called gyres to form messes like the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where there is six times more plastic that zooplankton by mass. Beyond spawning prolific and horrific images of dead sea life, the pollution threatens the entire marine biome and, by extension, all ecosystems on Earth. While it’s important to eliminate new waste entering the oceans, it’s also necessary to remove existing plastic from the gyres to ensure that ocean ecosystems aren’t completely devastated.
One response to this need is The Ocean Cleanup, a passive plastic removal system with serious potential. What makes the system “passive” is the fact that, unlike many proposed removal methods, The Ocean Cleanup doesn’t depend on ships that burn fuel while trawling for plastic, but instead consists of a stationary installation in the middle of the ocean made effective by the ocean’s own currents. The removal process begins when a series of booms, floating on the surface of the water and organized in a large V-shape, catch debris from the top layer of water, where most plastic floats. Currents push the plastic along the floating booms towards the center of the V-formation to consolidate into a thick slurry. There a a solar-powered removal tower takes small debris out of the water via centrifuge and large debris via conveyer belt. The plastic harvest is finally removed from the tower by boats that will come at regular intervals. Though the plastic is at that point degraded by weathering , The Ocean Cleanup has developed methods to turn the debris into oil as a way to recycle and mitigate costs.
The Ocean Cleanup enjoyed extensive press coverage in late 2013, partially because the organization is spearheaded by a 19-year-old visionary named Boyan Slat. However, it was also heavily criticized for “inflated” claims and because the press shunned other potentially feasible cleanup projects. In response to the attention and criticism, The Ocean Cleanup researched and published a 500+ page feasibility study as of June 2014 to substantiate the organization’s claims, and the conclusions are staggering. Tests that addressed questions about harm to sea life discovered that most sea life will flow under the booms, and negligible amounts of plankton will be hurt (Slat says the maximum amount of plankton that will be affected is equivalent to 7 seconds of yearly plankton reproduction). The booms were found to be resistant to 95% of weather conditions, and were redesigned to fail smartly and decouple in the most extreme weather. Moreover, research into mooring the system in the depths of the ocean found that it would be easier than even a common oil rig mooring. Most importantly, looking into the actual cleanup potential of the system found that 80% of plastic that reaches the booms will be captured, an enormous accomplishment in effectiveness.
As of now, The Ocean Cleanup is still experimenting and testing, but they’re moving fast. They are working on mechanical recycling of the damaged plastic and are continuing to collect oceanographic data and deploy larger operational tests. To fund these efforts, The Ocean Cleanup is running a crowd-funding campaign on their website, and as of early July 2014, have made it more than halfway to their goal of $2 million. The end goal: a 100-km long boom system that can take half of the plastic out of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over the course of 10 years at a cost 33 times lower than traditional, active methods. Given the annual $13 billion costs from plastic waste in oceans, this is a project worth funding. Just as importantly, The Ocean Cleanup is run by a smart, persistent group that perseveres in the face of adversity. As Boyan Slat says, he and his team want to “make the Ocean Cleanup one of those things that couldn’t be done but [was] done.”
Environmental Impact: Reduced ocean pollution
Measurement: The Ocean Cleanup
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