The Ocean Cleanup by Samantha Jakuboski, July 20 2016, 3 Comments

As a city girl, I am, sadly, used to seeing plastic bags hanging from tree branches, gum and cigarette butts stamped into the sidewalk, and crushed soda bottles stuck between the grates of the gutters. Yet, I must remind myself that litter is not exclusive to land, for our impacts on the environment are far-reaching. Today, large patches of garbage can be found in the middle of our oceans (in places that have little, if any, contact with humans!) as a result of currents that ferry litter from shores miles away. Since plastic is not biodegradable, it is, and will remain, the chief constituent of these patches, continuing to pose a threat to the health of both sea life and mankind.

In an effort to clean up our oceans, Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup nonprofit foundation in 2013. He was seventeen years old. Last month, after years of research and the publication of a 500 page feasibility study, The Ocean Cleanup announced the launch of its first prototype. This prototype is the first-ever ocean cleanup to be tested at sea, and if successful, the system will be able to clean close to 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the largest of the garbage patches, containing a third of all oceanic plastic debris) in just ten years.

Floating Barriers

Since trash tends to accumulate on shorelines, The Ocean CleanUp designed a system of long, snakelike, floating barriers to serve as provisional shorelines (see picture above). The barriers extend 1.5 meters below and above the ocean, and are anchored to the sea floor using technology similar to that used to anchor oil rigs. On the bottom of the barriers are screens, which capture litter and, unlike nets, allow sea life to escape underneath. The barriers are able to enclose debris floating on the surface of the water into a concentrated area. The system then relies on the current to push the litter into a V-shaped array, where the trash can be collected and pulled from the water. In this way, the ocean's currents act as the main energy source in gathering the litter (see picture below). As The Ocean Cleanup proudly states on its website, "Why move through the ocean, if the ocean can move through you?" Solar panels will provide any additional energy needed for the collection. The Ocean Cleanup plans to sell the collected plastic and to become self-sustainable in the future. Right now, they have been relying on crowdfunding and donors to come up with the more than two million dollars needed for the project.

In late June, after rigorous testing at Deltares and Maritime Research Institute Netherlands, The Ocean Cleanup placed a 100m section of the system 23km off the coast of the Netherlands in the North Sea. The goal of this prototype is to determine whether or not the barriers--which are made up from ten layers of rubber, polyesters, and fabric-- are strong enough to withstand harsh storms in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The North Sea is an ideal location given its strong currents and powerful storms. The prototype is equipped with cameras and motion sensors that will measure the force of the currents and waves.

If all goes well with the prototype, The Ocean Cleanup plans to launch its first operation pilot off the coast of Japan at the end of 2017, and its full-scale, 100km operation in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 2020. This system will be 100x longer than any other system at sea, 10x further out to sea than any oil rig in existence, and it will be the deepest system moored to the ocean floor.

Reducing plastic and other trash is crucial if we are to live more sustainably. At EcoPlum, we, too, are on a mission to achieve this goal. Check out our most recent endeavor, the EcoPlum Business gifts website, which provides businesses with unique, sustainable promotional products.

Picture Credits: The Ocean Cleanup

Samantha is a rising junior at Barnard College, Columbia University. She hopes that through blogging, she can help change the way people view their actions in relation to the earth, encouraging them to lead more eco-friendly lives. Samantha also maintains the environmental science blog, Green Science, for Nature Journal.