Sustainability

The Ocean Cleanup to start extracting plastic from the Pacific in 2018

The Ocean Cleanup project has announced it will be able to begin extracting plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Path in 2018 following a design breakthrough.

Speaking at a specially-convened event in Utrecht yesterday (11 May), Boyan Slat, founder of the Dutch foundation tackling marine plastics pollution, outlined how new developments in the project’s system will allow the cleanup of half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years.

An artist's rendering of the barrier in place

Following last week’s announcement of a successful funding round, which saw The Ocean Cleanup raise $21.7 million (£16.8 million) since November 2016, the foundation is now in a position to accelerate production and deployment of its system, with testing to start of the American west coast at the end of 2017, before the first deployment in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2018.

The system pioneered by The Ocean Cleanup is based on the deployment of passive plastic capturing technology, where weighted sheets hang to a depth of two to three metres from ‘V’-shaped buoyant barriers and direct floating plastic towards a central platform where it then concentrates and is collected for onward processing.

The Ocean Cleanup to start extracting plastic from the Pacific in 2018
Slat announced the new developments in front of four of the anchors that will hold the system in place
The technological improvements announced at the event consist of the introduction of a mobile, drifting system instead of one that is anchored to the seabed, as well as multiple barriers as opposed to just one.

Sea anchors that root the barriers to a deeper part of the ocean where the current is slower will allow the barriers to move freely, but at a slower speed than the surface currents, allowing plastic to collect in the barriers while they are moving.

The maneuverability of the barriers mean that they can congregate where the plastic concentrates, and thus collect more plastic, while introducing multiple barriers makes funding the project easier, as rather than needing all of the funding up front, the project can be progressively scaled up as more funding comes in.

Commenting on the announcement, Boyan Slat, said: “At The Ocean Cleanup we are always looking for ways to make the cleanup faster, better and cheaper. Today is another important day in moving in that direction. The cleanup of the world’s oceans is just around the corner.

“Due to our attitude of ‘testing to learn’ until the technology is proven, I am confident that – with our expert partners - we will succeed in our mission."

A rapid development

Founded in the Netherlands in 2013 by the then-18 year old Slat, The Ocean Cleanup has dedicated itself to tackling marine plastics pollution, with experts estimating that around 12.2 million tonnes of plastic enters the marine environment every year.

The project takes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as its focus point due to the fact that it is thought to contain 140,000 tonnes of plastic – equivalent to one third of all ocean plastic.

The Ocean Cleanup to start extracting plastic from the Pacific in 2018
A prototype of the barrier has already been deployed in the North Sea
Since its foundation, the project has carried out a range of tests to evaluate its cleanup system and to perfect its design. In August 2015, the project sent 30 vessels across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in an attempt to quantify the level of plastic in the area, and this was followed by an aerial expedition in October 2016, with findings from both missions showing that the true amount of plastic in this area has been ‘heavily underestimated’.

In June 2016, a 100-metre long prototype was deployed in the North Sea, 23 kilometres off the coast of the Netherlands, to test the system’s resilience in extreme weather conditions.

While receiving great support and acclaim for its system design, experts have expressed doubts over The Ocean Cleanup’s assertion that the majority of marine plastics collects on the surface of the ocean because ‘larger sized plastic pollution, which by mass represents most of the plastic in the ocean, is more buoyant and stays even closer to the sea surface’.

Environmental consultants Eunomia Research & Consulting say that barely one per cent of marine plastics concentrate on the ocean surface, with 94 per cent of plastic that enters the ocean ending up on the sea floor. The consultancy advocate fighting plastic pollution on the beaches, before it enters the oceans.

More information on the project can be found at The Ocean Cleanup’s website or in Resource’s in-depth interview with Boyan Slat.

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