Ocean cleanup problems and solutions

MattBy Matthew D. Batista

The Problem

Plastic Does Not Disappear. “Every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”  Plastic permeates the Earth and its ecological systems. Since the advent and mass adoption of plastic, roughly over the last 100 years, humans have treated plastics like they are bio-degradable. Spoiler alert, they are not. Plastics also gradually break down into smaller debris, making the collection problem even worse. The result is an astonishing concentration of plastics, often ending up in oceans around the globe.

Pacific Gyre Accumulation. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (“GPGP”) is a region of the Pacific Ocean, between the United States and Japan, where dumped plastics accumulate due to natural ocean currents. The GPGP is an area of incredible plastic concentration, estimated to be roughly twice the size of Texas. Though the problem has been known for some time, a recent study—using perhaps the most comprehensive research method yet—has concluded that the concentration by weight of plastics in the GPGP may be between four and sixteen times more than previously estimated. The study estimates a minimum total of at 80,000 tons (approximately 176,000,000 pounds) of plastic floating in the gyre.

sea_turtleWidespread Damage. It turns out, dumping 13 million metric tons of plastic each year (or a garbage truck load every minute) into the oceans has negative effects on living organisms. Plastics take thousands of years to break down, resulting in gradually smaller pieces of plastic, known as microplastics, floating around the oceans. Marine life ingest these microplastics, and then humans who consume seafood ingest them too. These plastics are estimated to be ingested by half of all sea turtles, and sixty percent of seabirds. About one million seabirds die per year due to plastic ingestion. By 2050, the  plastics in the ocean are expected to outweigh marine life.

Boyan Slat and the Ocean Cleanup Project

Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of the Ocean Cleanup Project, is trying to engineer at least a portion of the problem away. Slat, a 24-year-old Dutchman, came up with the idea as a 16-year-old. While on a diving trip in Greece, Slat noticed there was more plastic than fish around him. He eventually dropped out of his studies as an aerospace engineering student and started the Ocean Cleanup Project.

The Ocean Cleanup Project. The system’s current design calls for a 600-meter U-Shaped floating apparatus that flows with ocean currents and is equipped with a sheath that prevents surface plastic from escaping its bounds. The system will be constantly monitored to determine the health of the system, the plastic content gathered, and the health of local marine life. Marine vessels then remove the plastic for recycling periodically. Features range from preventing collisions with marine vessels, allowing marine life safe passage underneath the system, and utilizing solar capture to power the electrical systems in the unit. The goals of the project include deploying a 60-fleet array of units in the GPGP. Projections are that 50% of the plastics in the GPGP would be removed in just 5 years.

Launch. The system, which has been being assembled in Alameda, CA, finally launched from the San Francisco Bay for its “Pacific Trials” on Sept. 9, 2018. By Sept. 19, the system traveled 350 nautical miles out to sea to conduct the final trial run before full-scale deployment into the GPGP.

The G7 Charlevoix Summit

Most of the G7 Takes on Plastic. Various world governments are beginning to acknowledge and tackle the problem of plastic. On Sept. 25, 5 of the 7 G7 nations signed the Charlevoix Blueprint, implementing Paris Climate Accord goals and instituting the Ocean Plastics Charter. Notably absent of course, is the United States as well as Japan. Many corporations pledged their support for the Charter, including Coca-Cola, Walmart, Dow Chemicals, among others.

The Ocean Plastics Charter. The Charlevoix Ocean Plastics Charter acknowledges the revolutionary nature of plastics. However, the charter also acknowledges the externalities associated with mismanaged use and inadequate disposure methods regarding plastics. The Charter aims to take on a more efficient lifecycle management approach through five principles: (1) encouraging sustainable design and production while ensuring secondary markets for plastic products; (2) improving collection and management infrastructure with a 2040 goal of recovering 100% of plastics; (3) encouraging sustainable lifestyles market instruments and education; (4) continuing to innovate and develop new technologies; and (5) continuing removal of shoreline plastic debris accumulation.

Action is Still Required. In addition to projects such as the Ocean Cleanup Project, privately and/or crowd funded start-ups are likely going to be the needed catalysts for broader action in a variety of sustainable, green technologies. While the Ocean Plastics Charter and the broader goals of the Charlevoix Summit and the Paris Climate Accord are wonderful steps forward and signs of global cooperation, still too little tangible action is under way. A plastic soup nightmare, twice the size of Texas, is floating just off the U.S. coastline in the Pacific Ocean. The only one doing anything tangible about it is a 24-year-old inventor from the Netherlands.

More information on the Ocean Cleanup Project.

More information on the Charlevoix Blueprint.

Read the Economic Impact Assessment of the Ocean Cleanup Project.

Cover photo by Kevin Krejci.


Leave a Reply