The Ocean Cleanup
In 2012 a Dutch student at Delft University named Boyan Slat came up with an idea while being on a vacation. While surfing, he noticed more plastic in the waters in which he swam than fish. This simultaneously stunning and depressing revelation set him up to start one of the most laurelled sustainable projects of the past few years: the Ocean Cleanup.
The Ocean Cleanup’s first goal is to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years after the system is implemented, while the long-term goal focusses on a plastic free ocean by source reduction and a world-wide implemented plastic clean-up system in oceans, rivers and other kinds of waters.
Plastics floating in the oceans pose quite some problems. Firstly, it kills sea life directly. But it also finds its way up the food chain. Poisonous particles, such as PCBs and DDTs, from the plastic end up ever higher in the food chain, a food chain of which we are also a part. In five large rotating currents across the oceans the plastic is concentrating in large volumes. Boyan realised that in these areas huge progress concerning plastic retrieval and recycling could be made.
The system, in simple terms, works quite ingeniously. Where previously experts only saw options through actively cleaning the waters from plastics, Boyan thought of a way to use the water’s activity to work for him. The oceanic currents, by which the plastics keep moving, were not seen as an obstacle, but a solution. By using passive nets that simply float in these five large rotating currents, the oceanic currents move the plastic to these currents, collecting the plastics in five large areas where passive nets can catch them. These passive nets, moving along with the large rotating currents, are fully closed nets, which results in no mesh size for the particles and thus make it possible to collect all sizes of plastics, from microparticles to large pieces. Moreover, since these nets are fully closed and used at an angle, no sea life will be endangered since they are safely forced to move underneath the nets. The collected plastic in these nets are moved to one central place in the nets by the oceanic currents, where they are collected in a buffer and can be transported by ship for recycling. This is the system in a nutshell, but I strongly encourage you to dive into the system and its technology at the Ocean Cleanup’s website.
In the feasibility study of the Ocean Cleanup in 2014, supported and made possible by dozens of researches and students, it was concluded that the Ocean Cleanup is a feasible, but moreover a viable method for large-scale, passive and efficient removal of floating plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of the five large rotating currents containing large amounts of plastics located between the Americas and Asia. Next to that, the study concretely concluded, among many other findings, that extracting 42% of the plastics (around 70 thousand metric tonnes) in 10 years would result in a break-even cost of €4.53 per kg. Of course, for the product to be profitable, the revenue per kg should be higher than €4.53. However, it is currently assumed that the direct industry damage in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation region is € 6.51 per kg. So even if the retrieved plastic would not be worth anything, which it is, it would still be economically profitable for countries in this region.
Last May the 11th the Ocean Cleanup set up a press conference. In this conference the project was announced to be rolled out quicker than previously thought. After extensive testing a prototype in the North Sea, the experimental results were very promising. Through a discovery, the team found that, instead of using one 50 km large system attached to the bottom, they can use 50 small systems of 2 km long that can operate by using anchors instead of being attached to the bottom. Since the systems do not need to be attached to the seabed, they are much cheaper to install and operate. Moreover, the smaller systems behave like plastic by slowly moving along the same pattern as the plastic due to the oceanic currents. The result is an expected plastic reduction of 50% in 5 years instead of the previously thought 42% reduction in 10 years. The implementation of the project is also accelerated and the prospect is that the system will begin operating in the beginning of 2018.
However, as with every project and sustainable goal, there are concerns and drawbacks. That is mainly because all sustainable problems are wicked ones; they simply cannot be solved due to their immense complexity. Such a project, how promising and well-thought it sounds, does not solve the problem. It is merely a way to tackle a part of the consequences. When and if this project succeeds in these five rotating current in the large oceans, Boyan’s product can be altered and innovated to also work in deltas and estuaries. Such a product would be able to capture the plastic before it enters the oceans.
Still, in order to solve the problem indefinitely, a way to tackle the problem at its core should be found. As long as we keep dumping our debris, be it plastic or something else, wherever we can and want, these kinds of problems will keep arising. One can even argue that an innovation such as the one from Boyan Slat will diminish our efforts in tackling the problems at its root; us. We, as humanity, are the root cause of this problem, and we will need to be altered in our ways and culture to lower waste. ‘Solutions’ such as Boyan Slat’s will never be true solutions, only ways to prolong and diminish our waste production and excuse our ignorance towards the problem, until we can change in our own habits of dumping plastic waste. Innovations such as Boyan Slat’s are the penultimate step; eliminating our own day-to-day waste production must be the last one.