EcoBeat Staff – The Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains approximately 1.9 million bits of plastic per square mile of ocean, that’s a piece of plastic almost every 10 feet for 7.7 million square miles, according to National Geographic. Few solutions have surfaced for addressing the world’s ocean plastic epidemic, as many scientists have advocated for policy changes to limit plastic use, with the focus on preventing further pollution. Yet over the past several years, a young entrepreneur from the Netherlands by the name of Boyan Slat has steadily gained media attention for his proposed solution, The Ocean Cleanup.
The project would line floating barriers across thousands of miles of ocean to passively redirect plastic into a floating processing plant, which Slat believes could clean the entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) in as little as 5 years. Plastic collected from the ocean would then be transported to recycling facilities, presenting an opportunity to recover some of the costs incurred collecting the 7 million tons of plastic currently estimated in the GPGP.
The Ocean Cleanup’s concept looks likely to be put in to action in 2016 off the coast of South Korea and Japan, pending a more in-depth feasibility study on the precise location. A system of buoys located near Tsushima would stretch 2000 meters (1.24 miles), creating the longest open ocean floating structure ever, in the hopes of proving the viability of Slat’s passive plastic collection concept.
The Ocean Cleanup claims all operations will have a near non-existent impact on wildlife; however, a project of this type and scale has never been tested before. Concerns remain as to whether or not this system of barriers, buoys, and filtration systems will be as passive as Slat’s team would have you believe.
There is also the obvious issue of sending a multi-mile long barrier into the middle of the ocean where it would almost definitely be subjected to unpredictable tidal and weather events. To address this, the buoy system is designed to automatically disengage, allowing the barriers to separate and minimize overall damage. Estimates as to how frequently such events might occur or how long it might take to locate and reconstruct barriers after disengagement have not been provided. Given the fact that this project is meant to clean plastic from the oceans, not contribute to it, it is concerning that the risk mitigation mechanism involves having a massive man-made barrier automatically break in to separate untraceable pieces that would float uncontrollably through the ocean until hypothetically collected for reconstruction.
Lastly, there is the issue of the size of plastic in the world’s garbage patches. Slat’s filtration mechanism will be capable of collecting plastic as small as 2 centimeters in size; however, there is debate in the scientific community as to whether this goes small enough. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released comments stating the garbage patches are more like a soup of microplastics the size of pepper flakes. A number of research projects have come to similar conclusions, yet The Ocean Cleanup’s self-assessment of the GPGP stands in stark contract by stating their system will catch 80% of all ocean plastics passing through it.
On the opposite end of the scale are plastic islands, some measuring 50 feet in length, that have been observed by drones over the past year. How a single filtration system will manage to process such a wide variety of pollutants in varying sizes remains to be seen.
In the face of a massive global plastic crisis, The Ocean Cleanup is essentially the only project that has come forward with a concept to address the issue of removing plastics that are already in the ocean. While organizations like the Ocean Conservancy focus on beach cleanups and policy mechanisms to prevent plastic from entering the marine ecosystem in the first place, the amount of plastic already in the oceans warrants at minimum an attempt at resolution.
Boyan Slat’s project seems to have many flaws, but it remains to be tested in the real world and should not be written off as a far-fetched concept. Perhaps if more of the scientific minds critiquing The Ocean Cleanup dedicated their energy to helping it evolve, we might see the concept grow into an effective and scale-able solution.