Plastic pollution is one of humanity’s biggest problems. For decades, vast amounts of plastic have been entering our oceans through polluted streams and rivers. This plastic waste destroys the habitat of billions of marine creatures. Studies suggest that if we carry on as normal, there could be no marine life left by 2050. Time is ticking but fortunately, there is hope. The largest ocean clean-up project of all time is currently taking place. Once fully operational, docents of these massive floaters could finally clean our oceans. But is this just a crazy idea or could this plan actually work out and save our oceans? Let’s find out! 25 years ago, Captain Charles Moore made an absolutely horrifying discovery.
He was sailing in the Pacific Ocean when he discovered a giant plastic soup that later became known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a vortex of plastic that flows in a circular direction along with the ocean’s currents. It stretches over an area three times the size of France. The whole garbage patch contains approximately 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, which is about 250 pieces for every human alive. Even worse, there are another four of these massive garbage patches across the world’s oceans, and they are getting bigger. For marine life, this garbage is a total disaster. Over 800 species of marine life are directly negatively impacted by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which can involve entanglement, ingestion, or damage to their habitats. More than 100 species are threatened by extinction due to plastic pollution. So why hasn’t anyone tried cleaning up the ocean? This very question was asked by Boyan Slat, the founder of Ocean Cleanup. In 2011, he was scuba diving in Greece and could see more plastic than fish in the ocean. He wanted to do something about it but was only 16 years old at the time. Slat’s breakthrough was when he realized that the clean-up could be done by using the ocean’s currents. “Instead of going after the plastic, you could let the plastic come to you.” He came up with this idea while he was still at school and presented it at a TedX conference in 2012.
Sadly, the idea didn’t gain any traction. Instead, he went on to study aerospace engineering at college. After 6 months, his desire to clean the ocean wouldn’t go away, so he dropped out of college and started the Ocean Cleanup on his own. With no investors, Boyan Slat was going to clean the ocean by himself with just 300 dollars of his savings. In March 2013, things finally took off. His Ted Talk was picked up by news outlets and went viral. He was no longer alone and received $90,000 of initial funding. His desire to clean the ocean was no longer just a dream but becoming a serious reality. The support he received was overwhelming. People not only wanted to support Slat with their money but also with their expertise. A hundred scientists and engineers all volunteered to look at how much it would take to clean up the ocean and how they would accomplish their mission. They decided to tackle the biggest mess first and prioritize The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is by far the largest garbage patch in the world and bigger than the other four combined. Alongside this, interceptors would be placed in rivers to prevent plastic from entering the oceans. So in September 2018, The Ocean Cleanup trialed System 001, which was the first ever ocean cleanup system of its kind. System 001 involved taking a 600-meter floater net out into the ocean alongside a 3-meter deep skirt. The floater is durable enough at the top so the plastic cannot float above it, but also deep enough that plastic cannot flow beneath it. Any marine life in this area can simply swim below it. The system and the plastic are being carried by the ocean’s currents while the plastic gets sucked into its U shape. The edges of the skirt get deeper as you approach the center, which allows the current to naturally generate its U shape.
Right in the middle of the U shape is a retention zone, which holds the plastic and acts like a funnel. Along the floater are solar-powered lights, cameras, sensors, and anti-collision systems. Through this technology, The Ocean Cleanup can monitor the success of the system as they go along. Eventually, a ship travels to this cleanup system, collects the plastic, and brings it back to land. The plastic is then recycled and made into more products. Once this system was launched, they had to simply see if it worked. Slat’s model, which he had been thinking about since he was a teenager, was finally going out into the ocean. The sad reality was that this model simply didn’t work. Plastic was getting trapped into the system but was still slipping out as well. Its ability to catch and retain plastic was a massive failure. On top of that, they found out towards the end that an 18-meter part of the system disconnected and broke. It was back to the drawing board. Slat didn’t look at the fracture as a big issue. There were fractures with the first airplanes and railways, and there were also inevitably going to be issues with the first-ever ocean cleanup system. The bigger problem was why the plastic slipped out. The speed of the floater depended on the currents, the wind, the weather, as well as the floater’s impact on the sea. There were so many variables that it was incredibly difficult to track what went wrong. By July 2021, it was time to upgrade the system, and System 002 was launched. This time around, the floater is towed at 1.5 knots by two ships at each end. The ocean is chaotic, but having ships control the speed of the floater created order in chaos. By controlling the speed, they could stop plastic from toppling over. Additionally, the floater was now 800 meters long, so an extra third bigger than its previous model. Another aim of this system was to track hotspots. The entire Pacific Garbage Patch does not have the same density of plastic, but instead has a higher density closer to its core. So to get the most amount of plastic out of the ocean, they specifically targeted these areas.
A year after the launch, System 002 could be considered somewhat a success. By July 2022, a major milestone was achieved. It was revealed that they have now extracted 100,000kg of plastic from the North Pacific Garbage Patch which is roughly the weight of two Boeing 737-800s. But there is a lot more to do. This is only 0.1% of the entire garbage patch. Although this was celebrated as a huge victory, this took Ocean Cleanup a year to complete. If they repeated the same process every year, it would take 1000 years to clean up the North Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch is three times the size of France, and they had only cleaned up something that is 2% the size of Paris. This is why Ocean Cleanup is only just getting started. In response to this milestone, OceanCleanup said: “Now our technology is validated, we are ready to move on to our new and expanded System 003, which is expected to capture plastic at a rate potentially 10 times higher than the previous version through a combination of increased size, improved efficiency, and increased uptime.” System 003 will be three times the size of System 002, and the floater will be roughly 2.4 kilometers in length. 10 of these Systems would be enough to clean the entire Pacific Garbage Patch. Soon, Ocean Cleanup changed the name of System 003 to System 03. At the beginning of the Ocean Cleanup, they believed that they would need hundreds of systems to clean the ocean. Now, they know that they would need less than 100, which is why they removed a zero from its name. Another key difference is the number of boats. There will be three boats on System 03: two for holding the system in place and another for collecting the plastic as they go along. All of these boats will continually rotate their positions. Every two weeks, another boat will arrive and replace one of the boats which will sail back to shore.
These new boats will also provide new supplies and new crews to the operation. But an Ocean Cleanup is not the only thing that is going to solve plastic pollution. A fundamental change in how we live and consume products needs to change too. And that just brings us to the end of our video. What do you think about TheOceanCleanup and System 03? Let us know in the comments below. If like us, you are concerned about plastic pollution, there are a number of things you can do. You can reduce the number of single-use plastics you use, recycle properly and participate in beach cleanups. Outside of that, you can support organizations, politicians, or local representatives who are also vocal about this issue. Spreading the word to your friends and family can also make a difference! If you want to see more about similar projects, you should watch our video about “The Biggest Living Megaproject in the World