by Santiago Fernández
Boyan Slat, a dutch sixteen-year-old kid, scuba dives with a friend in Greece. Outside the water, his friend is very excited talking about the thousands of jelly-fish he saw. Boyan seems to be talking to himself when he replies. Those were plastic bags, he says staring at the ground.
Two years later, in 2012, Boyan is giving a Ted talk in the small town of Delft. Behind him, photographs of his vacations in Las Azores are shown. He can be seen diving in crystal water. Suddenly, a picture of the beach breaks the beautiful moment. Plastic trash is everywhere. Boyan walks to a corner of the stage and comes back with a big glass container full of plastic fragments picked up that day. Interestingly you don’t see a lot of red particles in here, he says. Because those look like food to birds more than any other color. A new photograph is shown now. A jumble of feathers with peak and little red plastic pieces. A seagull autopsy that time reveals. This is the result. Besides killing directly sea life, but due to the absorption of PCBs and DDTs, it also poisons the food chain, a food chain that includes us humans, he says. I won’t talk about environmental issues in general. I think that the common response is, well that’s a long way off, that’s for our children to worry about. Boyan raises his hand and says “Hello, here I am”.
Why don’t we clean up this mess? is the simple question he later asks. During the talk, he explains that as a school assignment he had a chance to spend a lot of time on a subject of choice together with a friend. That gave him the opportunity to do some research regarding plastic pollution. Using a manta trawl, the common device to sample plastic, they studied the different sizes of plastic waste present in water. Also, how to separate plankton using centrifugal forces without hurting it, and the distribution of plastic fragments according to the sea depth. Of course we didn’t finish our studies there, says Boyan, cause you can’t clean something you don’t know the size of. Given all the information out there, with huge differences between estimations, he contacted some universities – Delft, Utrecht and Hawaii, and then arrived to a number so big it becomes abstract until Boyan uses an image: that’s the weight of 1,000 Eiffel towers floating in the gyres. He ends his talk explaining his solution, a system that uses the ocean currents and doesn’t require fuel to operate. And, with the revenue obtained from the recovered plastic, the system is profitable. Please don’t tell me can’t clean this up together, ends Boyan. The audience claps and cheers.
Both the talk and the idea go unnoticed. Life goes on. Boyan starts his university studies in Aerospace Engineering. Far from disappointment he keeps working on his idea. Six months later, he quits his studies and founds The Ocean Cleanup. His starting capital: 300 euros. But one night, in March 2013, things are about to change. Different news sites pick up the Ted talk and the idea goes viral. Boyan profits the momentum and recruits an initial team as well as 90,000 USD using crowdfunding. The project starts.
The next step is to determine whether the cleanup technology is an effective method to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A voluntary team of close to 100 scientists and engineers spends a year performing a feasibility study. The result is a 528 pages study, published in June 2014. The project gains traction.
Once the idea is validated, a new crowdfunding campaign is launched. With the support of 38,000 funders from 160 countries they raise 2,154,282 USD making it “the most successful non-profit crowdfunding campaign in history”. The project takes off.
The following years, new studies and analysis are made. The main objective is to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawaii. By converting a former military aircraft into a high research plataform the Ocean Cleanup ran the first-ever aerial survey of the garbage patch using cutting-edge sensors that allowed them to reconstruct the 3D shapes of large plastic debris to calculate their mass. The results of all this work? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch measures 1.6 million square km, that is three times the size of France. The patch contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, which equals to 250 pieces for every human in the world. New studies are made, including six expeditions to the North Atlantic to measure the vertical distribution of plastic at sea. Launching time arrives.
On September 8, The Ocean Cleanup launches its first cleanup system from San Francisco Bay, into the North Pacific. You could think about it as an automatic sweeping system. The principle behind it is simple: create a coastline where there are none, concentrate the plastic and take it out. The system consists of a 600-meter-long floater and a 3-meter-deep skirt attached below. Most of the plastic remains under water and is carried by the ocean current. However, wind and waves propel the system only, as the floater partly sticks above the surface, the system thus moves faster than the plastic, allowing it to be captured. The skirt extends deeper in the middle than in the edges, as the current applies pressure, the system naturally adopts a U-shape which enables it to concentrate plastic in its center, like a funnel. An because the system, as the plastic, is free floating it automatically drifts to the areas with the highest plastic concentration. Fitted with solar powered lights, anti-collision systems, cameras sensors and satellite antennas that allows real time positioning. Periodically, a support vessel comes by to take out the concentrated plastic, transport it to land and recycle it into durable products. You can watch here an animation of the system.
This is the first of a fleet of 60 systems to be deployed before 2020 that will allow to reduce the Great Pacific Garbage Patch up to 50% every 5 years. Combining the cleanup with source reduction on land paves, The Ocean Cleanup estimates that by the year 2050 the ocean will be plastic free. A very ambitious objective. But if we think again about that young boy, sad after diving among plastic bags only eight years ago, and all the things he has accomplished, there is hope.
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