Some Hope in the Fight to Clean Up Ocean-Dumped Plastics

By George Stubbs

Sometime later this year, the first significant volume of plastic waste dumped in the ocean may be recovered for reprocessing, thanks to the ingenuity of a 23-year-old entrepreneur. A recent article in Fast Company recalls the journey of Boyan Slat, who at a TEDx talk six years ago presented the concept of a barrier that uses the ocean’s movement to collect plastic pieces swirling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other ocean “gyres” containing billions and billions of pieces of plastic waste.

Today, the article reports, Slat and his team are in the process of building a 2,000-foot floating tube, made of HDPE, that will “be flexible enough to bend with the waves, but rigid enough to form a U-shaped barrier to stop the plastic floating on the ocean’s surface.” Within a few weeks, the developers plan to test a section of the tube in the waters off of San Francisco. If that test proves successful, they’ll bring the section back for full assembly and then conduct a “tow test” of the entire system about 200 miles offshore.

Slat is starting big because, he believes, the problem of ocean plastic is big, and smaller-scale solutions won’t be up to the task of dealing with it within any reasonable time frame. We continue to dispose of our plastic waste improperly at a rapid rate, and of course much of that waste ends up in the ocean.

“I think very often problems are so big, people approach problems from the bottom up: ‘If only I do this little bit, then hopefully there will be some sort of snowball effect that will be bigger and bigger,’” he told Fast Company. “I’m much more in favor of the top-down approach to problem-solving. Really ask, if the problem is this big, how do you get to 100%? Then knowing what it takes to get to 100%, work your way back. Well, what do I have to do now?” Of course, Slat believes we have to find solutions and the front end—not only to prevent improper dumping, but generating less plastic waste to begin with.

Learn more about Boyan’s effort, which he calls “The Ocean Cleanup,” at the organization’s web site. According to The Ocean Cleanup, which has a staff of more than 70 engineers, researchers, scientists, and computational modelers working on the ocean waste problem, there are currently over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only the largest of them. As this blog has reported in the past, these plastics are becoming a hazard to marine life and may pose health problems to the food chain, all the way up to our own tables.

The Ocean Cleanup, which is based in Rotterdam, has lofty ambitions. Slat and his team would like to develop technologies that could clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. Best of luck to you, Boyan.

The scope of the ocean plastics problem was recently outlined in the July 27, 2018, issue of The Week (Vol. 18, Issue 883). Here are the key take-aways in bullet form (thanks to MRC member Tom Middleton for putting this summary together):

  • Human beings have put 14 million tons of plastic into the oceans.
  • In 2015, researchers analyzed trash in the ocean and found that 99.9% of it was plastic.
  • According to the World Economic Forum, by 2050, there will be more plastic, by weight, in the ocean than fish.
  • Most of the plastic ends up in five piles of plastic called gyres, which are created by ocean currents.
  • The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of Texas.
  • Five gyres cover 40% of the earth’s ocean surfaces.
  • It would take 1,000 boats cleaning water 24/7 79 years to clean it up.
  • Marine life research is incomplete, but fish raised in waters with lots of plastic have been found to be “smaller, slower, and more stupid” than regular fish.
  • A dead whale was found with 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach, including 80 shopping bags.
  • Two studies show that 83% of world’s drinking water contains plastic, and that 93% of bottled water contains some plastic.
  • Lots of seafood now contain plastic.
  • Scientists feel that global cooperation is needed to defeat the problem. People are trying, by not using plastic, banning certain types (single-use), making all plastic packaging recyclable, and (as illustrated above) developing innovative technologies to clean up the oceans.

As I said, best of luck, Boyan.

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