The Ocean Cleanup: the US-size plastic vortex and the highschooler who is swiping it

Written by Bianca Thiglia

When Charles Moore, racing boat skipper, found his ship surrounded by plastic while crossing the Pacific Ocean, he discovered the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 
It is a gyre made of marine debris, litter –mainly plastic- dumped into the waters and collected by the tides. Estimations regarding its size vary depending on the level of density considered but all convey the gigantic entity of the phenomenon: from the size of Texas to twice the size of the United States.
Animals can mistake garbage for food, dying of ruptured organs, or remain entangled in trash, made of abandoned nets for a consistent part. Plastic prevents the development of organisms such as plankton and algae, fundamental requirements for life, thus disrupting the entire ecosystem. As smaller animals that feed on them decrease, their predators will be affected, from tunas to whales. But the scarce availability and rising price of seafood are not our only concern: once toxic chemicals are released by plastics into the water and enter the food chain, we all become affected by those pollutant agents. 

Proposed solutions to the problem imply ridiculous costs and carbon footprints not worth the effort. Moreover, being the Patch in international waters, no state is willing to take on the financial burden. Lastly, the Great Pacific is only one of the existing plastic gyres.
After a high school project, the Dutch student Boyan Slat (1994) became so involved with the problem that decided to develop his own clean-up solution. In 2012 he presented his idea, a passive process that would not go after plastic but catalyse it instead: The Ocean Cleanup. This model would not only save a huge part of the costs, becoming economically feasible, but also be eco-friendly, harmless to animals and source of potential profits. In 10 years, half of the Great Pacific Garbage patch could be gone. 
Too good to be true, the fantasy of a 16-years-old, impossible to fund…?
Well, a feasibility study were published in 2014 –purchasable in its made-of-recycled-plastic version or downloadable online- and prototypes are at work, tons of garbage have already been collected. In 2014 The Ocean Cleanup achieved the most successful non-profit crowd funding in history. 
At the moment, a team of 100 people, including volunteers, is working on research and engineering, together with funding and raising awareness. The recruiting session is still open. 

In 2014, Boyan Slat received by the United Nations the UNEP Champion of the Earth Award. His Ocean Cleanup cooperates with The Vortex Project. The latter is a campaign whose aim is creating fashion out of plastic debris and partners include the Grammy awarded musician Pharrell Williams, Capitain Paul Watson (founder of the environmental NGO Sea Shepherd) and Sylvia Earle or “Her Deepness”, marine biologist and a UNEP Champion of the Earth Award herself. The group is also working at the documentary “The Plastic Era”, explaining how plastic wastes can be seen as a resource instead of a cost to avoid. 

This demonstrate how collected plastic could not only be sold to recycling companies but also to a variety of other businesses, making the whole clean-up operation profitable. In addition, the product is suitable to be turned into oil.  
Further analysing the system design explains how Boyan’s idea is cost efficient and economically feasible. It is based on creating a device that doesn’t have to move and seal the oceans but rather lets the oceans move through it and exploits the tides and the winds. 
No emissions, no nets involved but solid barriers, so that sea life wouldn’t be entangled. On the other hand, the level of efficiency reaches the 80% of collection of plastic encountered.

Up to 20% of the plastic found in the oceans originates by debris directly thrown into the sea such as by cargo ships of offshore oilrigs. Abandoned nets from industrial fishing, a common practice to get rid of unneeded equipment, play a major role. Some of such nets cover miles-wide areas and are able to cloak the entire Maldives.  
Obviously, the remaining 80% comes from land-based activities. Every cigarette butt thrown on the road could end up in the gyre.  

The Ocean Cleanup offer a dream-like solution to a problem we all are involved in and the complete version will be ready in 2 to 3 years. However, support is still needed and there will always be gyres to clean if our consuming system will stay unchanged. 

Photo gallery of The Ocean Cleanup project:
(all the photos credentials go to 
1) Boyan Slat

2) The latest version of the project, where the white spots are all the plastic debris it's able to attract and collect into the tower.

Finally, a very effective video presentation of the different evolution phases of the project and on how it works. 

Note: the autor of the first picture at the top of the article is  Ceasar Harada