Dutch Entrepreneur Says He Can Clean Up the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - This summer, a small armada of vessels from all over the globe will converge in the Pacific Ocean. Their arrival is expected to herald what arguably can be called one of the more creative environmental cleanup projects. As many as fifty boats consisting of everything from research vessels to private cruisers, sailboats and commercial fishing vessels will track the Pacific's Great Garbage Patch as it makes its rocky journey through currents between Hawaii and the California coastline.

The mega exploration, as the team at the nonprofit organization, The Ocean Cleanup, calls it, will help the organization close in on their efforts to clean up the burgeoning debris in the world’s oceans.

“At least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are currently in the oceans, a third of which is concentrated in the infamous Pacific Great Garbage Patch,” the NGO says. Researchers have already checked the open seas in an effort to get a sense of where the garbage is located within the five massive gyres that span the globe.

Researchers have determined that there are now at least 100 species at risk from the garbage, including the loggerhead turtle and the Hawaiian monk seal. Fish and mammals are at risk of becoming entangled in plastic as well as ingesting it, which means oftentimes, it enters our food stream as well.
The concept behind The Ocean Cleanup is the work of 20 year-old Boyan Slat, from the Netherlands, who at the age of 16 embarked on a goal to prove that the world's oceans could be rid of plastic, and quickly.

“It had always been assumed that cleaning the oceans was impossible, due to the vastness of the areas in which plastic is concentrated.” That’s because, says Boyan Slat, those researching the concept figured vessels would use nets to scoop up the garbage – an impossible venture that would take tens of thousands of years and billions of dollars to complete. And the amount of CO2 emitted in such a venture, Slat points out, would negate any environmental benefits realized.

So Slat and a group of researchers, volunteers and other professionals set out to develop an alternative method. What they came up with would span miles of oceans, but if successful, could clean up the garbage patches in decades instead of millenia.

Next year, The Ocean Cleanup team will launch the first passive ocean garbage collector in the straits between Japan and Korea. The pilot system, spanning just over a mile and a quarter in length, is made up of a network of floating barriers that are attached to the ocean bed that serve as a giant net of sorts for plastic trash. The test filtering system will be deployed off the coast of Japan’s Tushima Island, whose southern coastline has become inundated by garbage that washes in from ocean currents. According to the NGO’s website, more than a million cubic feet of garbage is deposited at the shores of the island each year, creating insurmountable cleanup costs for local communities.

The actual floatable barrier system that is being planned is much larger than the pilot system and would take more than a few months to erect. But the team says that its efficacy has already been proven through two tests that were conducted as part of a feasibility study, outside the Azores Islands and the city of Rotterdam. In both instances, the report notes, plankton and other sea life did not end up in the filtering system. Plastic and other trash on the other hand, remained behind for retrieval.

Slat points out that the benefits of this cutting-edge filtering system aren’t limited to the environmental improvements. The Ocean Cleanup system also stands to save governments and nonprofits billions of dollars over the long haul by reducing the impact on tourism (globally a 3 trillion dollar industry) and other affected industries.

But if Slat’s concept works, it may offer other benefits as well as an industry that at one time relied on impossibly high manpower costs, such as a new industry that spawns its own incentive for keeping the world's oceans clean. And with any luck, it may incentivize industries to find ways to clean up vital freshwater bodies as well.

What is perhaps most impressive about The Ocean Cleanup however, is the speed at which Slat and research teams have turned this first corner. The pilot will be an essential proving point for this project, but the amount of time that researchers have taken to reach this juncture (years, instead of decades) is reflective of the fact that researchers believe there is a genuine urgency to cleaning up the ocean’s garbage.

And like many of the millennial generation of entrepreneurs these days, Boyan Slat has reminded us the fallacy of assuming that there is only one way to tackle a problem that has been debated for decades without resolve. If The Ocean Cleanup succeeds it will be not because it was the right technology, but because people believed it was time to finally get the job done.