The Ocean Cleanup
By Bel Jacobs
A major initiative aiming to clear a rubbish riddled area of the Pacific Ocean of its mini-continent of discarded plastic? What’s not to love?
This is exactly what has been proposed by The Ocean Cleanup. The project, recognised at the Designs of the Year award 2015, uses floating booms, weighted to move with the current, to slowly gather the plastic.
Once collected, the plastic is recycled into pellets and turned into sellable products to help put money back into the project. The first major operation is due begin next year, two years ahead of schedule, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that swirling, ugly vortex of waste in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean.
The aim is to clean up nearly half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch's plastic pollution in 5 years.
Dutch engineering student Slat first conceived The Ocean CleanUp 2011 when he was 16, during a diving holiday in Greece in which he saw pristine waters devastated by plastic waste.
Slat’s organisation now has over 100 volunteers, including scientists and engineers, and is supported by 15 other institutions. Over the past seven years, it has raised $31 million, most of it from a group of Silicon investors including Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.
Inevitably, the scheme has gained detractors, who argue instead that the money should be catching the plastic at source, by investing in recycling facilities and waste management. They argue that only three percent of ocean waste floats on the surface where Slat’s booms will be able to collect it. Those are the big bits - the fishing nets, the crates and the buoys - but it’s the smaller pieces that are wrecking most havoc: washing up on remote islands, consumed by whales, turtles and sea birds who eventually starve to death.
Few will forget a recent video of the sea turtle having a plastic straw extracted from its nostril #ditchthestraw
Then, there’s the microplastics, which have been found in sediments and frozen inside Arctic ice. Plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. Others says that resources should be spent catching plastic in rivers before it enters the ocean.
The argument is that the Ocean Cleanup - while beautiful, clever, even poetic - doesn’t get to the core of the plastic waste problem.
In response, Slat says his team has conducted extensive research in the great Pacific garbage patch - and that the number of large plastic objects is far bigger than what was published in previous studies. Wherever scientists think we need to focus, these pieces need to be picked up before they are ground down into just the harmful smaller pieces that we’ve been talking about.
The real solution is that humans just need to stop using so much plastic.
It remains to be seen whether the Ocean Cleanup can do what it set out to. At least, it’s doing something. And while Slat focuses on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, other agencies can target recycling and river clean ups. The answer to the world’s current and approaching problems is unlikely to be either this system or that one; it’ll need to be altogether - and The Ocean CleanUp has its place.