Plastic pollution: project set to clean the ocean in 10 years

Boyan Slat want to rid the ocean of plastic Boyan Slat set up The Ocean Clean Up project to rid the oceans of plastic
The oceans do a good job at hiding rubbish, but they are struggling with the overwhelming quantity being dumped in them. Tackling the problem over such a vast area is a mind boggling challenge. So, who better, than a teenager to try and tackle it.

It is dubbed the largest clean up in history, but this project may also be one of the most ambitious. The Ocean Cleanup has one simple aim; remove plastic from the oceans.

Given the scale of the problem, it is perhaps not surprising that the drive to fix it comes from a teenager. Boyan Slat, now 21, brings fresh ideas, the arrogance of youth, a determination to change the world and the self belief to do it.

Here, the lack of life experience is his advantage. He has not been around long enough to be convinced by established experts that a cleanup is impossible. There will always be smart people and good engineers, however, dreamers with drive are harder to come by.

“It amazed me that in the middle of the ocean, a thousand miles offshore, you can find six times more plastic than plankton,” he says. “It absolutely shocked me that entire species are threatened by it. But what astounded me was that most people involved in the topic were absolutely certain a cleanup would be impossible.”

Going viral

Slat, CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup rose to prominence several years ago when he spoke at a TEDx event about his ideas to cleanup the ocean. It went viral.

The concept is to build massive boom arms that capture floating plastic within the ocean’s gyres. These naturally circulating currents have concentrated plastic debris in areas of the oceans known broadly as ocean garbage patches. Of the five that exist, all are problematic, but none more so than the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.

“The conventional idea of extracting litter is to have a vessel with nets on either side, and you go fishing for plastic,” he says. “But, why move though the oceans if the oceans can move through you. Instead of going after the plastic, you can simply wait for the plastic to come to you.”

Slat wants to build and deploy an array of 100km long floating barriers that will be moored in place. Underneath hangs a submerged non-permeable screen to form a barrier against plastic that is suspended under the surface. The design will make entanglement impossible and allow sea life to easily pass underneath. However, all sizes of lighter-than-water plastic, from particulates to larger items, will be trapped, and with the help of the currents debris will gradually move along the V-shaped boom arms to the barrier’s centre, to a collection platform.

“What we found was that depending on the weather, most plastic can be found in top 3m,” he says. “We also found that the minute particles are 40 times higher than the larger particles – we have to take them out but we don’t want to take the important plankton out of the water.

“For the system to work two basic principles had to be proven. First, plastic would need to be captured by these floating barriers, and second the plastic needs to travel along the angle of the barriers. We simulated the flow around the booms that showed us it actually works. But even better, we then built a 40m long boom as a proof of concept, and deployed it in the Atlantic near the Azores, which confirmed the results.”

Practical redesign

The collection platform has been redesigned from the original eye catching manta ray inspired vessel to a more functional podium, which is a marked shift in the maturity of the concept and of Slat’s own approach to the problem.

“It doesn’t look as graceful as some of the early concept designs, but this is a no nonsense structure that is stable, cost effective and storm resistant,” he says. “The extraction equipment uses existing technologies such as a slurry pump, coupled to a centrifuge, which will extract smaller particles, while a mesh conveyor scoops out larger debris.”

At the time of the original TEDx talk in 2012, the idea was little more than a school project. Despite its viral popularity, the concept was broadly dismissed by experts, which highlighted numerous impractical elements. Undeterred, Slat wrote down 50 fundamental questions that needed answering. After an initial round of crowd funding he returned with a comprehensive feasibility study, a report over 500 pages in length, outlining in detail the technology andaddressing all the concerns that had been raised.

The feasibility study was authored by Slat along with over 70 experts in engineering, ecology, oceanography, marine law, finance and recycling. It includes simulation data, practical tests, and field data to make the case for large scale deployment. To top it off, the cover of the reports are made from recycled plastic, collected from the oceans during his fact finding expeditions.

Slat’s team, now consisting of more than 50 experts in numerous fields, is moving toward a series of upscaling tests. The team projects the first pilot to be operational within a year, where it will deploy a 100mbarrier segment in the North Sea, 23 km off the coast of The Netherlands. This is totest the concept in open waters. Next, a coastal pilot will be deployed offthe coast of Tsushima Island, Japan. Spanning more than 2km, it will be the longest floating structure ever deployed on the oceans. The island’s position and surrounding currents mean 30,000m3 of rubbish is dumped on its shores every year. It is keen to find a solution to the problem.

Achievable ambition

The ambition of the project has been reduced from the original claim of cleaning the oceans in five years, to removing 40% of plastic in 10. Despite the reduction, however, it is still an impressive concept, but Slat wants to make this more than that.

With more than $2 million raised from a crowd funding campaign, and engineers and experts flocking to become part of the team, he now has everything he needs to see the project through. Following the upcoming tests and pilot deployment, Ocean Cleanup is working tirelessly on achieving its large scale, fully operational pilot in two or three years within the Great Ocean Garbage Patch.

“Based on the research, we cannot find a single reason why it cannot be done,” he says. “We have successfully proven the feasibility of this concept. But we are not there yet... I vow to continue with this project.

The scale of the problem

Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of Ocean Cleanup first saw the problem while diving.

“I saw more plastic there than fish,” he says. “My friend said, ‘wow, there are a lot of Jelly Fish’. There were no jelly fish, only plastic bags.”

It is hard not be uplifted by the effort, but impossible not be shocked at the problem. Every year 8 million tonnes of plastic are added to the ocean. In 2050, it’s estimated there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Nearly all the plastic comes from consumer waste, with little coming from ‘engineered’ plastics where the value of the material is much greater.

The plastic rubbish congregates in ocean currents known as gyres. “It is the strangest thing to be four days from land and see more plastic than you have ever seen in your life,” he says.

Animals eat the plastic, and unable to digest it they starve to death with full bloated stomachs. It doesn’t only pose a threat to sea life, due to absorption of PCB and DDT, the poisons enter our food chain.

Justin Cunningham

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