The Ocean Cleanup aims to take on the ‘impossible challenge’ of clearing up plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. What started out as a Dutch schoolboy’s science project, could potentially pave the way for the ‘largest clean up in history’.
As this was achieved in just 100 days via crowd-funding, this makes it the most successful non-profit crowd funding campaign in history. So it is clear that public support for The Ocean Cleanup project is rapidly gaining momentum.
Of course we must close the tap to prevent any more plastic reaching the oceans in the first place. But this will not solve the problem of the plastics already trapped in the currents of the gyres. Boyan Slat, founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup Foundation
To recognise the enormous challenge faced by The Ocean Cleanup, one must first appreciate the scale of the problem.
Every year millions of tonnes of discarded plastics end up in the sea. As most of it is made of non-degradable material it can take decades or even centuries to break down. It is enormously damaging to nature and wildlife.
Every year around 100,000 mammals and 1 million seabirds are killed by plastic debris, and ultimately our own health is affected by plastic working its way into the food chain. Economically, the impact of plastic pollution costs £13 billion internationally.
Most waste plastics end up on the sea bed, or get swept up by oceanic currents to form ‘gyres’ – huge floating islands of plastic debris. There are 5 major oceanic gyres – the largest being the North Pacific Gyre (or Great Pacific Garbage Patch as it is otherwise known) which is estimated to be more than twice the size of Texas!
Clearing up these gyres would be the ultimate goal of The Ocean Cleanup project.
The Ocean Cleanup concept was originally devised by Dutchman Boyan Slat when he was just 15-years old. Whilst diving in Greece, he was shocked to find more plastic bags than fish in the water. When he became aware of the full extent of plastic pollution in our oceans, he wondered ‘Why can’t we clean this up?’
This question inspired a high school science project which enabled Slat to study the problem and understand why a clean-up is so difficult. He then put aside his social life and studies to focus on finding a solution.
In 2012, at the age of 17, he presented his proposal for a ‘passive’ ocean cleaning concept. In contrast to traditional ‘fishing’ based clean up proposals, Slat’s design would simply let wind and currents drive plastic debris into a catchment area where it could be extracted and removed – with a view to being recycled if possible.
Slat’s concept sparked a great deal of debate – both positive and negative. Ultimately, it highlighted that many questions remained unanswered. To be taken seriously, The Ocean Cleanup would need to undergo a full feasibility study – an almost impossible task for Slat to undertake independently.
Then in March 2013, The Ocean Cleanup story went viral online. What followed was a successful crowd-funding campaign that raised $80,000 in just 15 days. The money helped fund the feasibility study, but just as vital to the project’s success were the offers of support that enabled Slat to build a team of 150 volunteers and professionals.
One year later the feasibility study ‘How the Oceans can Clean Themselves’ was published – complete with a cover made from recycled marine plastic waste. It proposed a viable method to clean half of the Great Pacific Gyre within ten years. Most of the key questions surrounding engineering, oceanography, ecology, maritime law, finance and recycling had now been answered.
Any practical and operational issues that remained unresolved then became the focus of a further series of studies and testing. These were carried out through computer simulations and modelling, as well as live studies and tests within a gyre.
There were some extremely positive outcomes, including:
- Engineering a storm-resistant boom that can operate in over 95% of conditions. Booms could also be uncoupled to avoid catastrophic failure in extreme conditions.
- Calculating that approximately 80% of the plastic encountering the boom could be captured.
- Proving that ocean plastic is suitable to be turned into oil. Testing whether or not the plastic can be turned into new materials through mechanical recycling also showed promising results.
- Calculating that it will only cost €4.50 for every kg of plastic removed – about 33 times less expensive than conventional clean-up methods. This is due to low operational expenditures, high capture efficiency and the possibility of reusing the plastics. This is excluding the value of the extracted plastic, which can potentially cover a major part of these costs.
Although, the Ocean Cleanup design has changed somewhat during this process, the overall concept remains the same. It uses floating barriers instead of nets, so entanglement of wildlife is impossible.
Virtually all of the water current flows underneath the booms, carrying away all (neutrally buoyant) organisms, and preventing by-catch. At the same time, the lighter-than-water plastic collects in front of the floating barrier.
A scalable array of moorings and booms are attached to the seabed, and are positioned in a giant ‘V’ scale to channel debris into a central column for collection. Here it is carried up a mesh conveyor on the man platform (or spar), where the debris is collected. The main conveyor, which is powered by solar panels on the roof, has a small particle intake halfway up.
With its projected high capture and field efficiency, a single gyre can be tackled in just 5-10 years (or longer, depending on the chosen deployment strategy).
As yet, The Ocean Cleanup team have been unable to find a suitable reason to prevent the current design from being put into practice.
This brings us to the present chapter of The Ocean CleanUp story, and its recent success in crowd-funding $2 million with the support of over 38,000 funders from 160 countries. The Ocean Cleanup is now another step closer in its quest of cleaning the oceans of plastics. The next step, which involves the construction and testing of large-scale operational pilots, can now begin.
The funding raised will be utilized to deploy a series of up-scaling tests, ultimately resulting in a fully operational offshore clean up array in 3 years’ time; the final preparation before full-scale execution. The team projects the first pilot to be operational within a year.
Plastic pollution has been recognized by the UN as one of the major environmental challenges facing mankind in the 21st century. The crowd funding received so far enables us to start the Pilot Phase, in which we push the concept from feasible to executable. Boyan Slat, founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup Foundation
We first took the decision to publish an article on The Ocean Cleanup earlier this year, prior to publication of the feasibility study. Despite the fact that the project was still controversial, we were impressed by Boyan Slat’s visionary design, and his determination to take on a challenge that others said could not be met. We are delighted that The Ocean Cleanup project is taking shape so positively, and we hope you will show support for The Ocean Cleanup and share this inspirational story with others.
For more information about The Ocean Cleanup we recommend the following resources:
- Full projects facts and figures can be found on The Ocean Clean-up website >
- Follow The Ocean Cleanup blog >
- Get the latest project updates: The Ocean Cleanup on Facebook >
- Follow The Ocean Cleanup on Twitter >
- Watch a fast-paced video about The Ocean Cleanup – What we do >
- Boyan Slat’s presentation talk How We Showed the Oceans Could Clean Themselves >
The Ocean Cleanup features in the September 2014 edition of Rhine Capital Partners monthly investment updates.
- On 29th September 2014