On September 8, The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands founded by 24-year-old Boyan Slat and funded by a number of tech investors, including Peter Thiel and Marc Benioff, launched the first test device intended to catch plastic trash floating near the surface of the ocean. The over 600-meter-long plastic tube has a 3-meter skirt attached underneath and is driven by wind and wave power. The long snaking tube essentially forms a barrier designed to collect floating plastic, which would then be retrieved every few weeks by a support vessel and transported back to shore for recycling.
The test device was towed into the ocean by tugboat to its starting point about 400 kilometres off the coast of San Francisco Bay, where it will be tested for 2 weeks. The first step will be to monitor how the system stands up to the brutal unforgiving waves of the Pacific before being towed a further 1500 metres to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch ― an area around 2200 kilometres from California which is estimated to contain 1.8 trillion pieces of floating plastic. If the prototype works, the next step will be to deploy 60 of these rubbish-collecting structures with the hopes of removing at least half of the plastic currently polluting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years.
The plan is controversial and even Slat and his team of engineers are unsure whether the proposed concept will work. One major issue is that not all plastic actually floats. There are also many questions surrounding the potential environmental impacts of the strategy. Of crucial concern is that the device could act like the fish aggregating devices (FADs) used by fisherman to attract fish, potentially luring large fish, marine mammals, and seabirds, thus disrupting the ecosystem. Furthermore, the Ocean Cleanup is composed of high-density polyethylene, a plastic, so there is the risk that it will generate microplastics of its own thereby adding to the problem it is actually trying to solve.
Another fear is that big expensive projects like this one could divert money and attention away from other methods proven to be effective, such as crucial waste management policies as well as initiatives focused on picking up trash from local waterways, which could prevent plastics from reaching the oceans in the first place. On Sept. 15, almost one million people will take part in the annual International Coastal Cleanup which promises to remove more than nine thousand tonnes of rubbish, mainly plastic, from beaches and waterways.
Moreover, perhaps the focus should be shifted towards the biggest offenders contributing to plastic waste in the world’s oceans: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand (1). Rapidly developing economies like these rely heavily on plastics but are lacking sufficient waste management infrastructures.
Despite all the debate, the Ocean Cleanup team remains optimistic and hopes to reduce the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans by at least 90 per cent by 2040. There are still a few hurdles to overcome but the proposed concept, as well as other thinking-outside-the-box ideas, will hopefully prove to be better than inaction. Particularly as the effects of pollution and climate change owing to human influence become increasingly more evident.
(1) Jambeck, J.R. et al. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science (2015). DOI: 10.1126/science.1260352