About 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year – and it largely remains there. This problem was what a few years caused back then 16-year-old Boyan Slat to take the first steps towards organizing what could potentially be the biggest ocean clean-up in history. To follow through with this ambition, the 21-year-old Dutch innovator and engineer founded The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which has now deployed a 100-meter clean-up boom in the North Sea to test the prototypes for the first time. The ultimate goal is to get rid over half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the next 10 years – a likely herculean task.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sometimes called the Pacific trash vortex, was discovered bit by bit around thirty years ago. It is a monstrous swarm of human-made marine debris in the central North Pacific Ocean. But as opposed to what it sounds like, it is not a large continuous patch of plastic bags, but plastic of all sizes (including particles), concentrating in various regions of the North Pacific. The exact size, content, and location of the “garbage patches” are difficult to accurately predict, but we know it has had a detrimental effect on marine environment.
Along comes Boyan Slat. Initially, the young innovator did not succeed in getting much attention for his idea until he roused widespread interest for his project which his TEDx Talk. There he talked about a boom that, when strategically anchored in certain parts of the sea, would collect any plastic coming its way. Besides the attention, Slat also gained 2 million US Dollars in funding (roughly 2.7 AUD). He was only 19 at the time. Now the first North Sea Prototype was towed 20km out to sea for a year of sensor-monitored tests. But what exactly does his prize-winning project look like?
The true challenge in creating these booms was, according to the Ocean Cleanup engineers, to “design a system that does not ‘fight the ocean’, but rather ‘moves with it’”. The result of years of planning, hard work and innovation is a device consisting of an anchored system of floating booms connected to processing platforms. Next to each other these booms form a barrier, made out of vulcanized rubber, that harness sea currents to passively funnel floating rubbish – including particles – into a cone. The structure is anchored at depths of up to 4,500 meters, keeping it in place while trapping the plastic waste for periodic collection. When first unveiling his plans, Slat said this system could in the end remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the oceans.
Foundation representatives gave a statement to The Guardian the next step would be to scale the barrier up for real-life trials off the Japanese coast at the end of 2017. The Dutch Minister Dijksma stated her government, which partially-funded the test, continues backing the project – despite a few quiet critics (who stated the system could never work, or that we have to start on land to really solve the problem) and the projects’ eventual cost of about Euro 300 million (roughly 446 million AUD).
This weekend the first prototype tests are taking place, after that improvements on the prototype will likely be made before The Ocean Cleanup precedes. Slat has said that if these first tests are successful they “should put us on track to deploy the first operational pilot system in late 2017” – meaning we might be one step closer to cleaning up our oceans. We’re keeping our fingers crossed!