About three years ago, a 19-year-old Dutch student named Boyan Slat made news worldwide with his study on how to get plastic waste out of the oceans. The idea was to gather the plastic in a central location, by combining modern technology with knowledge of the ocean’s currents.
The technology Boyan dreamed up (everyone seems to call him by his first name) consists of a huge V-shaped construction that collects plastic but allows ocean life to pass through. A successful crowdfunding effort brought in $2 million, and allowed the young researcher to start developing his invention.
Since this story first appeared in 2014, project Ocean Cleanup has made progress. Boyan’s initial objective was to gather a lot of data on ocean plastic pollution. That included continuing existing research to measure different sizes of plastic in the ocean, and at what depths they occur.
Researchers towed a device behind their ships that consisted of multiple nets reaching down five meters below the ocean surface. The preliminary results showed that microplastics reach greater depths, an important insight for the eventual design.
In August 2015, Ocean Cleanup organized a data-gathering “mega-expedition” with thirty ships operating simultaneously, covering a whopping 3.5 million square kilometres of ocean area. A follow-up publication in 2016 revealed that the amount of microplastics in the ocean had been wildly underestimated. Plastic that is bigger than half a millimetre is generally floating on the ocean’s surface or just below it, but smaller pieces of plastic were often pushed down by measuring devices. This new research showed that the pollution was greater than initially thought.
Dr. Julia Reisser, who works with Ocean Cleanup, comments on the urgent need to clean up this waste in this video. She notes that it is easier to clean up bigger pieces of plastic, but these eventually break down into smaller pieces, finally becoming microplastics, which are much more difficult to collect.
In September and October of 2016, an aerial expedition was launched to locate the larger pieces of plastic, or “macroplastics.” These escaped the relatively small nets in previous expeditions and are essential to collect, if the large-scale clean-up is to succeed. After this expedition, the mapping phase of the project was completed.
Besides data gathering, Ocean Cleanpu has also been testing designs for their ability to hold up to tough open sea conditions over several years. For the sake of efficiency this testing so far progressed with small-scale and computer models, such as 2015’s scale-model testing of the design for its ability to align perfectly with the ocean waves, so that plastics are not carried over the filter.
In June 2016, Ocean Cleanup revealed a prototype of its cleanup machine, to be placed in the North Sea for one year. The 100-meter-long prototype was a thousand times smaller than the eventual construction, but still, the harsh weather conditions in the North Sea would put the design to the ultimate test: Would the construction stay intact in some of the world’s harshest ocean conditions?
Two months in, a heavy storm damaged the prototype, proving the need for testing. Boyan’s team retrieved it, and gained important insights into the optimisation of the design from examining and repairing the damage.
Boyan plans to start the full-scale clean-up of the Pacific garbage patch in 2020. What can we expect from the Ocean Cleanup in the near future? When will the full scale construction — expected to be 100 kilometers long — be launched?
2017 will be an exciting year for the Ocean Cleanup project. In the second half of the year a prototype will be launched in the Pacific Ocean for the first time. But there is also a mysterious announcement on their website about something called ‘The Next Phase,” which will be unveiled on 11 May of this year. One can only guess what this will be about: the date of the prototype launch? Changes to the final design?
We’ll have to wait and see.
You can follow the progress of Ocean Cleanup at: https://www.theoceancleanup.com/.