- More than 320 million metric tons of plastic are produced every year, and a lot of it accumulates in the oceans.
- At age 16, Dutch innovator Boyan Slat decided he wanted to tackle the problem.
- Slat eventually proposed a massive cleanup device that could collect plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash-filled vortex that’s more than twice the size of Texas.
- The first version of the tool was deployed in the Pacific Ocean in 2018, but began spilling the plastic it had collected.
- An improved device, which launched in June 2019, has an underwater parachute to help slow the system down so that it can better retain plastic.
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The road to success hasn’t been smooth for 25-year-old Boyan Slat, the founder of The Ocean Cleanup, which aims to rid the oceans of harmful plastic.
Slat, a Dutch entrepreneur, came up with a concept for removing garbage from the ocean at age 16, and he’s been refining the idea ever since.
The system he eventually created is designed to collect plastic debris using the ocean’s currents. The technology remains largely unproven and has hit several snags, but in June, the organisation deployed an improved cleanup device that appears to be successfully catching (and holding onto) some trash. The group also recently published a study that sheds new light on how plastic journeys through the ocean.
If all goes according to plan, The Ocean Cleanup’s device could eventually remove half the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a trash-filled vortex in the Pacific Ocean that is more than twice as large as Texas – within five years.
Take a look at a timeline of Slat’s journey.
2010: Slat decided to devote his career to removing plastic from the ocean after going scuba-diving in Greece.
Slat, who was 16 at the time, previously told Business Insider that he saw more plastic bags than fish during that diving trip.
After returning to school, Slat watched a presentation that explained how currents take trash from all around the world and bring it together in giant patches. (The Coriolis force, a phenomenon caused by Earth’s rotation, accumulates this debris.)
These gyres of garbage can be found all over the world, but the north Pacific gyre – located between Hawaii and California – is the biggest. Slat said he wondered if the same forces that gather marine debris could be used to take the trash out of the ocean.
2012: Slat appeared in a TEDx talk and explained his plan to remove trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
In the TEDx talk, Slat proposed a radical idea: that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch could completely clean itself in five years. Charles Moore, who discovered the patch, previously estimated that it would take 79,000 years.
Slat said his proposed system would use ocean currents to passively collect plastic instead of actively hunting for trash in the waters.
February 2013: The Ocean Cleanup officially launched.
Though Slat’s TEDx talk didn’t immediately take off, he continued to pursue the idea while studying aerospace engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
After six months of college, Slat dropped out and launched The Ocean Cleanup with just $US340 from his savings.
Around the same time, his TEDx talk went viral, and his company gained new momentum.
June 2014: The Ocean Cleanup released a feasibility study that suggested Slat’s idea could be a success.
Nearly 100 scientists and engineers spent a year working on the 528-page study.
Computer simulations showed that floating arrays are capable of capturing plastic in the ocean, and the study’s authors found no major legal hurdles to deploying Slat’s concept.
The authors also determined that the device’s impact on sea life would likely be negligible.
September 2014: The startup raised more than $US2 million in a crowdfunding campaign.
More than 38,000 people from 160 countries helped The Ocean Cleanup raise enough money to build and test large-scale pilots.
July 2015: After six expeditions between November 2013 and July 2015, The Ocean Cleanup team determined that most plastic is found near the surface of the ocean.
The research showed that plastic concentrations decrease exponentially as depth increases. The highest concentration of plastic was found at the surface, and there was very little plastic just a couple meters down, according to The Ocean Cleanup team.
August 2015: The Ocean Cleanup finished a “Mega Expedition” that produced the first high-resolution map of the garbage patch.
After announcing the expedition in April 2015, The Ocean Cleanup deployed nearly 30 boats to scout the garbage gyre in July of that year.
The expedition produced the first high-resolution map of the garbage patch, which showed a higher volume of plastic objects than the team had expected.
“I’ve studied plastic in all the world’s oceans, but never seen any area as polluted as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” the company’s lead oceanographer, Julia Reisser, said in an online post. “With every trawl we completed, thousands of miles from land, we just found lots and lots of plastic.”
June 2016: The startup debuted its first prototype off the Dutch coast.
Slat’s first model consisted of a nearly 330-foot-long barrier to catch debris in the ocean. The main goal of the experiment, Slat said at the time, was to gather data about how the concept performed in the ocean, rather than to catch plastic.
“I estimate there is a 30% chance the system will break, but either way it will be a good test,” Slat said at the time.
May 2017: The Ocean Cleanup raised $US21.7 million for trials in the Pacific Ocean.
Donors included Peter Thiel and Marc Benioff.
May 2017: Slat revealed a new design and moved the launch timeline up from 2020 to 2018.
Slat’s original design involved mooring a massive plastic-collecting trap to the seabed more than 2.5 miles below the surface. After that plan sparked concerns among scientists, Slat decided to deploy smaller arrays with underwater “anchors” that drift about 2,000 feet beneath the surface.
“These systems will automatically drift or gravitate to where the plastic is,” Slat said at a press conference.
June 2018: The Dutch government signed an agreement to support The Ocean Cleanup.
When Slat’s group created its cleanup device, the system didn’t have a clear status for regulation under international laws. The Ocean Cleanup said its contraption was considered a ship under Dutch law, but unnamed vessels are not part of international regulations.
The startup ultimately signed an agreement with the Netherlands that classified the device in the same way as other sea vessels.
“By entering into this agreement, The Ocean Cleanup demonstrates that it is determined to deploy its systems in line with international legislation and with respect for the environment, maritime safety and other users of the high seas,” the organisation said.
The Ocean Cleanup also said its contraption would carry the Dutch flag.
September 2018: The Ocean Cleanup launched its first device in the Pacific Ocean.
In early September, Slat’s team set out to sea with its first 2,000-foot-long plastic cleaning array.
A ship called the Maersk Launcher brought the device, known as System 001, from the San Francisco Bay to a final testing site more than 200 miles offshore. The Ocean Cleanup has said that 60 of these arrays could remove 50% of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over five years.
System 001 cost about $US23 million to make, though Slat’s organisation said future arrays would cost less than $US6 million to make.
November 2018: System 001 made its way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but it started to spill plastic.
The Ocean Cleanup had hoped to collect 50 tons of plastic in the first year of using System 001.
The device, also known as “Wilson,” was supposed to begin harvesting plastic from the garbage patch in October 2018. But plastic began leaving the array, and the team was unable to fix the problem after eight weeks.
December 2018: After another malfunction, Wilson returned to port for repairs.
Slat’s team discovered that a 59-foot end-section had detached from the array.
On December 31, Slat wrote that it was too early to determine a cause for the problem, but he believed that material fatigue could be responsible.
There was no risk to crew members or marine animals, Slat said, but the organisation decided to return the array to port because its sensors and satellite system had been compromised.
The team brought back more than 4,400 pounds of plastic.
March 2019: Researchers figured out that a design and manufacturing flaw had led part of the device to break.
After two months working to diagnose the problem, researchers finally arrived at an answer. They attributed the detached array to a design and manufacturing problem that created a crack at the bottom of the pipe, which eventually widened into a fracture.
May 2019: The Ocean Cleanup announced an upgraded design.
On May 24, The Ocean Cleanup announced that it had upgraded the device’s design to account for the previous malfunctions.
One of the main improvements was meant to avoid any future cracks; the previous one had formed at a gap between a pipe and the screen that catches plastic debris. So the organisation moved the screen forward and used slings to connect it to the pipe. Designers also got rid of the stabilizers that were meant to keep the device from toppling over in order to reduce weight.
“The key is consistency,” they wrote. “The system must always go faster than the plastic or always go slower than the plastic.”
June 2019: The Ocean Cleanup found that animals were largely ignoring the device.
When shark researcher David Shiffman surveyed 15 ocean-plastic experts in June 2018, they all said Wilson would “probably or definitely kill” marine life, since animals could get caught in the array.
But a year later, The Ocean Cleanup said it had found “no critical interaction” between animals and the plastic-collecting device. For more than 140 days, the organisation monitored the behaviour of species such as birds, fish, humpback whales, and California sea lions using drones and underwater robots.
While the animals did swim under or fly above Wilson, they never got close enough to become trapped. Instead, they lingered in the area for minutes (or days in the case of birds), before moving on.
June 2019: The Ocean Cleanup brought an improved device out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
In June, the organisation launched a new tool known as System 001/B from Vancouver Island. Once the device arrived in the garbage patch, it underwent a series of tests.
The first test involved attaching an underwater parachute to act as a kind of anchor and slow the movement of the system. The second involved turning the device in the opposite direction and attaching inflatable bags that towed it faster than the plastic.
August 2019: The underwater parachute was found to be slowing down the system so that it could better retain plastic.
In a blog post on August 16, Slat said the parachute anchor proved to be the “winning concept” from the tests. The anchor slowed down the system, allowing the winds and waves to naturally push the plastic into the device’s opening.
The design change, Slat wrote, could enable the device to “take the plastic distribution down from twice the size of the state of Texas, to 1/35 the size of the city of Houston.”
But it also gave rise to an unexpected challenge: To secure the screen that’s responsible for catching plastic debris, The Ocean Cleanup installed a cork line similar to the ones that separate the lanes of a swimming pool. But the line isn’t tall enough to keep plastic from passing over.
September 2019: The Ocean Cleanup released a study that explains why plastic “disappears” on the way to the garbage patch.
Rather than quickly dissolving into microplastics, the team found, many plastic objects either get repeatedly pushed back toward land or disappear under the ocean’s surface. That means they can linger in the ocean environment for decades.
“I think we’ve been able to answer, or at least allude to, the biggest knowledge gap in the area of plastic pollution,” Slat said.
September 2019: Slat said the new cork line is almost built, and plastic is floating properly into the device.
Slat said his team is almost finished building a cork line that’s three to four times higher than the old one.
“I’m confident that, considering we created this problem, we should also be able to solve it,” he said. Right now, he added, plastic is floating into the system from the right direction.
If the improved cork line successfully blocks enough plastic, The Ocean Cleanup may start building a fleet of similar garbage-catching arrays. But Slat said he still has to prove that the technology works.
“Any hour of the day that I’m not focused on the technology is not in the interest of the mission,” he said.
- Read more about The Ocean Cleanup:
- Why the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Ocean cleanup array failed
- The massive plastic-cleaning device invented by a 24-year-old to clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is finally being put to the test. Here’s what it’s up against.
- What the creators of the giant plastic-cleaning system headed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch say to critics who doubt them
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