Plastic pollution in our oceans is a huge issue; therefore, it’ll take a huge solution. One such solution is the world’s first ocean plastic cleaner, created by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat’s non-profit organization The Ocean Cleanup. At only 18 years old, Slat decided to drop out of college and dedicate himself to his idea of a machine that can clean up the massive amount of plastic pollution found in our oceans, starting with one of the largest instances: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between Hawaii and California in the North Pacific Ocean, the area contains 1.78 trillion pieces of plastic, which comes to 79,000 tons.
Connected by 40 ft long plastic pipes, all 4 ft in diameter, the invention comes out to be 2,000 ft long. It works by moving slowly through the ocean with 9 ft nylon screens hanging down from the pipes to create a huge net, catching the plastic that’s moved by the currents. It will include 60 of these floating screens, passing through the patch over a period of six to eight weeks before it is emptied by boats and sent through again. Slat says that the machine should collect 40,000 metric tons within five years, picking up half of the plastic that’s in the patch.
While it isn’t new that plastic waste is a major issue in our oceans, the exact numbers of how much plastic really lies in the sea’s depths may be surprising. Every year, more than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean. With such a massive amount of plastic, the life of tons of ocean creatures is threatened and, in some cases, it may lead to species extinction. Some sea creatures eat discarded plastic under the assumption that it’s food, causing them to starve to death due to the plastic taking up room in their stomachs. Others become trapped in the plastic and die of suffocation.
Although many are supporting the efforts being done to move this project forward, it is not moving without controversy among several scientists and researchers. Some say that most of the plastic in the region has been broken down into micro-plastics and is now found deeper underwater, which makes removing it a nearly impossible task. Others worry that the machine will gather marine life that may feed off of the plastics, leading them to become trapped in the debris and harmed as a result. The non-profit has tried to combat these claims by releasing an environmental impact assessment, which concluded that the system posed “mostly low risks of environmental harms.”
Regardless of detractors, The Ocean Cleanup is still moving ahead with the project. After several redesigns, the machine is scheduled to be deployed off the coast on Sept. 8 from a dock in California where it’s currently being assembled. Slat has high hopes for the project and intends to create new side projects in the future to stop plastics from entering the ocean coasts; a major problem that many say is the issue that should be focused on.
“What I really hope is that the ocean clean-up in this century can be a symbol for us using technology to make things better,” says Slat.
Check out our previous coverage of the topic in 2014 here.
by Jessica Grioua