This system is all set to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Posted 18 May 2018

Plastic bag in oceanOne ambitious young environmentalist has developed a sea plastic clean-up system, spanning the length of a football field, to help tackle ocean pollution.

Boyan Slat presented his idea six years ago at TEDx. Since then, he has founded The Ocean Cleanup and raised $2.2 million in a crowdfunding campaign and other investors. 

This month, the first system is due to set sail for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where it will begin to clean up some of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic collected there by ocean currents. 

While some scientists showed scepticism for the idea, Slat told Fast Company that the project is about more than just finding success in Silicon Valley, a sentiment which kept him going through many of the engineering and funding trials he faced. 

“There were many times in the last few years that were really rough. [But] I would never be able to work on a photo-sharing app or ‘internet startup XYZ’. I think people overestimate the risk of high-risk projects,” he said. 

“Personally, I think I would find it much harder to make a photo-sharing app a success – it sounds counterintuitive, because it’s much easier from an engineering perspective, but I think if you work on something that’s truly exciting and bold and complicated, then you will attract the kind of people that are really smart and talented; people that like solving complicated problems.”

The first piece of the technology will be towed out of the San Francisco Bay, along the coast of the Farallon Islands, where the team will test how the system holds up to towing. The equipment will need to be towed for three weeks in order to make it to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

Following the tow testing, engineers will bring the first section back and connect the rest to form a total of the 610m of piping. The organisation expects to bring 5000kg of plastic ashore per month with its first system. 

The system uses a giant floating tube, 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, with nylon screen attached underneath to catch some of plastic below the surface.

While it is an ambitious plan, Slat said a problem of this size requires determination and the ability to think big. 

“Very often, problems are so big [that] people approach them 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 said. 

“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 [and ask] ‘what do I have to do now?’”

Related article:
Pollution on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing