About 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year. Part of this accumulates in 5 areas called gyres where currents converge and at least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are currently in the oceans.
This problem was the motivation for The Ocean Cleanup project, set up by a then seventeen-year-old Dutch engineering student Boyan Slat. He recalls his first diving holiday in Greece, where he says he came across more plastic bags than he did fish. He announced the possible revolutionary plans to build a way for the oceans to rid themselves of plastic with minimal human intervention at a 2012 TEDx talk.
Instead of going after the plastic itself, Slat developed a system through which, driven by the ocean currents, the plastic would concentrate itself, reducing the theoretical cleanup time from millennia to years. Slat’s invention consists of an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms that could be dispatched to the gyres across the globe. What makes Slat’s project unique is the fact that it is based on the idea of letting ocean currents do the work, effectively funneling plastic into the middle of a V-shaped structure, where the plastic will be collected and regularly shipped to land.
From the onset, the project was met with mixed opinions, popular with the media yet less so with the environmentalists. The main criticisms were the threat to marine ecosystems, and that by introducing such an unnatural and intrusive structure could cause unintended knock-on effects. Others pointed out that this was a project put forward by engineers, not ecologists. So, three years later, Slat has now produced a thorough 528-page feasibility study along with a backing of $2.1 million from crowd funding strategies.
The main points within the study aimed at the environmental risks are that because floating booms and no nets are used, entanglement of fish or mammals is ‘virtually impossible’.
Many environmentalists still argue that the resources and funding going into the Ocean Cleanup are deflecting attention away from the real problem – making sure plastic doesn’t enter the ocean in the first place. However, Plat has countered this by stating that ‘of course it is essential to first ‘close the tap’, however this will not be a solution for the plastics already trapped in the currents of the gyres.’
He has also put forward several convincing points that the project is environmentally sound and beneficial, for example the total carbon footprint of the 100km array will be the equivalent of several hundred cars, a negligible amount compared with the potential alternatives. A further benefit could also be that the plastic collected could be converted into energy sources.
Overall, it may have at first seemed too idealistic, a venture dreamed up by a teenage boy. However, Boyan Slat, with determination and the proper resources, has managed to turn criticism around and create a viable option for cleaning up our oceans. It’s easy to sit around and talk about the scale of the problem, yet all the while it getting worse. Whether Slat’s solution pulls through or not, we need to be having conversations which are pointing us in the right direction: finding a solution.