Ending an endless layer of plastics in the Pacific

Boyan Slat, shown here at just 17 in Horta, Azores, Portugal, proves age is no limitation for taking on one of the world's most pressing pollution issues. Photo: The Ocean Cleanup

Boyan Slat, shown here at just 17 in Horta, Azores, Portugal, proves age is no limitation for taking on one of the world’s most pressing pollution issues. Photo: Courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup

The latest research vessel studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch recently docked in San Francisco after a month at sea. The 30-boat Mega Expedition, considered the largest ever, was the most recent voyage to trawl, measure and survey the world's largest concentration of plastics in preparation for a large-scale scouring of the polluted stretch, set to begin in 2020.

Brainchild of 20-year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, The Ocean Cleanup is quantifying both micro-plastics — the kind that fish mistake for food — and dangerous large plastics like ghost nets and Japanese tsunami debris. Mega Expedition samples from the current-fueled North Pacific trash vortex are being analyzed and will be available in the next six months, Slat told GrindTV.

The Ocean Cleanup CEO and founder Boyan Slat and Julia Reisser, lead oceanographer, examining samples of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, aboard Mega Expedition mothership R/V Ocean Starr. Photo: The Ocean Cleanup

The Ocean Cleanup CEO and founder, Boyan Slat, and Julia Reisser, lead oceanographer, examining samples of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch aboard Mega Expedition mothership 'R/V Ocean Starr.' Photo: Courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup

"It's already very obvious that there's a lot more plastic than we expected," says Slat of the expedition that collected more data in three weeks than has been amassed in the last 40 years combined. "We thought one shipping container, our largest vessel [the 171-foot mothership], would be plenty for a month-long trip, but it was full after a few days. It was at least 10 times more than we expected."

Slat refers to plastics degradation as a ticking time bomb: "Chemicals are a million times higher in plastics and than in surrounding sea water. Large debris segments and breaks down into small debris, which is more dangerous because it imitates the food for fish and birds. It looks like tiny creatures and gets ingested like toxic pills."

Equally disturbing? These toxins eventually land on humans' dinner plates.

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The second part of The Ocean Cleanup's mission is testing the viability of Slat's "floating barrier" invention. The concept, in test phase, is proving to be a more sustainable option than the traditional approach of culling plastics with nets and vessels. It's estimated that the manual method would take 79,000 years and tens of billions of dollars.

Instead, Slat's design — a scalable array of hovering barriers attached to the seabed — leverages the natural ocean currents to concentrate lightweight plastics into a more central spot for extraction. The barriers could feasibly cover millions of square kilometers without moving.

Boyan Slat working from his bedroom in Delft, the Netherlands, before The Ocean Cleanup had an office. Photo: The Ocean Cleanup

Boyan Slat working from his bedroom in Delft, the Netherlands, before The Ocean Cleanup had an office. Photo: Courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup

"I've always been interested in technology and making things," Slat says. "When I was 16 and diving in Greece, I saw more plastic bags than fish and decided then to use technology in a way that could contribute to [solving the] global issue."

Early feasibility studies indicate that just one 100-kilometer floating barrier array could passively remove 42 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in a decade. Small-scale pilot programs are underway, with moving prototype barriers out of swimming pools and to a 1.5-mile test array off the coast of Japan slated for next year.

A crew inspects a 40-meter-long proof-of-concept floating barrier. Photo: The Ocean Cleanup

A crew inspects a 40-meter-long proof-of-concept floating barrier. Photo: Courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup

The technology's impacts are potentially life- and planet-altering. Currently, 8 million tons of plastics enter the ocean each year, with more than 5 trillion plastic particles already floating around — a third of which is concentrated in the Pacific Patch. More than 100 species are thought to be in jeopardy from plastics pollution, and worldwide the problem impacts fishing, shipping, tourism and coastline-based industries by $13 billion annually.

The Ocean Cleanup hopes to become sustainable long-term by funds from recycling the plastics removed. However, to get to launch phase in just five years, Slat and staff are depending on financial contributions from entrepreneur-philanthropists like Salesforce chairman, CEO and founder Marc Benioff, along with crowdfunding. The group made history last year by securing $2.2 million in the most successful non-profit crowdfunding campaign ever.

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Slat says people can get involved by not allowing plastics to enter the waterways in the first place, volunteering on plastics projects, raising funds and even applying for a position with The Ocean Cleanup.

"This is a problem that is ever-increasing. It's cumulative, and it's really us that will feel most of its effect, as we're [living] longer than past generations," Slat says. "The Patch is a symbol of 20th-century thinking, the ignorance caused by the side effect of development. But I hope The Ocean Cleanup can be a symbol for what we do in this century to use our ingenuity and creativity to make things better."

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