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What Is The Ocean Cleanup Project?

By Kirsten Wardman / Feb 16, 17

Plastic was first invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American living in New York state in 1907, but wasn't widely used until the second world war where it gained global acceptance and popularity as a cheaper alternative to wood and other raw natural materials and metals.  The problem with plastic, as we all now know, is that it takes from 300 to 1,000 years to fully decompose. 


What does that mean? It means that every single piece of plastic ever created is still in existence today. Every single piece, unless it was incinerated or burned, is still on our planet today. Eighty percent of that plastic ends up in the oceans, it's now estimated that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile of ocean. 

Much of these plastic particles are small, 5mm in diameter or size, and inside the gyres are six times more plentiful than plankton. Plankton is the main source of food for the oceans, and providing the oxygen for the air that we breathe. So here we have the largest growing trash dump, with an estimated depth of 9 feet,  twice the size of Texas containing plastics that is 6 times more plentiful than the plankton that provide food for the ocean’s ecosystems and the air that provides life to all living creatures. Environmentally, it’s hard to imagine a more serious problem, even arguably more grave while also doing its share of contribution to climate change.

But how does one go about attacking a problem that’s so important but not the responsibility of any one nation? Not to mention due to the enormous size, the micro particles of the plastic being so small, compounded by the overall ranges of depth make the challenge to clean astounding. Only insanely daring vision to take on a problem of this magnitude, one such leader is the twenty something Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat who founded the The Ocean Cleanup Project in 2013. Boyan has come up with an original way of cleaning this plastic soup by harnessing the oceanic currents as his natural energy source and positioning floating barriers to capture the trash.  Instead of using boats and nets, which would take thousands of years to clean, and cost billions of dollars he’s come up with a technology that will eliminate the need for human collection processes, and use the ocean’s own moving currents and energies to aggregate the trash into these barriers.

The concept uses an array technology developed by Boyan and his team of 50 researchers, with additional support from a small but growing army of volunteers. These cleanup units which are planned to be deployed full scale by 2020 will stretch out over 100 kilometers, and use the ocean’s currents as the primary source of energy, making the project energy and resource neutral. The project estimates that in a decade, they will be able to collect half of the plastic debris, no matter what size it is.

The arrays are formed in a V shape, so that the trash and plastic debris is naturally brought to a center where it can more effectively be collected. In order to catch the micro sized pieces, screens are used instead of nets. These screens will act like a natural coastline to capture the floating and submerged debris while allowing marine life to pass underneath since most of the debris floats within 1-200 meters from the surface.

The idea will be then to collected the amassed debris at the center of the V shaped arrays where it can be formed into bales of recyclable materials to be sold to companies that can reuse them for new products. The idea is that because the technology is modular, it can scale and eventually be repeatable both to other parts of the gyres and to other gyres around the world. In its simplest form, the roll out for production would be deploy an array(s), use the ocean’s energy and currents to naturally amass the debris into the center of the V, harvest the trash and debris, and then sell the materials on the market to help fund expanded operations. Upon successful rollout, expand and repeat process, indefinitely.

The project is not without its critics, many of them from respected and knowledgeable marine scientists and biologists. Some of these experts claim that the projects, despite being so popular gives false hope that the problem can even be solved. They claim that by giving a sense that the arrays will capture half the trash over a 10 year period increases the social implications that the problem isn’t as serious as it sounds. Since 80% of the world’s trash comes from the land, and this deflecting that focus, the Ocean Cleanup Project will not only fail, but actually causes more harm.

According to some of these same critics, another possible problem with the arrays is that the center of the V has a centrifuge of spinning turbines that will kill zooplankton, and a lot of fish species, especially migratory ones like tuna, sailfish, sharks, marlin which are will be highly susceptible to being caught in the screens.


Their argument is that by using the term “cleanup” in the name of the project provides a distorted or erroneous sense of hope for a problem that needs to be attacked at the source. The creation and consumption of plastics. The arrays and the project itself are causing more harm than good because they don’t address the primary root of the problem, the plastic itself and how to get the public and producers to stop using it.

How can you not applaud the efforts of the bold thinking young Dutchmen Boyan? It’d easy to throw your hands in the air, and say - What you’re doing won’t work, and the real problem is the people that thoughtlessly buy and consume plastics.  

From my perspective, Boyan is at least doing something about the plastic that is already in the gyres and exponentially growing. The Ocean Cleanup Project is one of the global charities that I’ve been supporting by sending a monthly portion of the proceeds from the sales of our eco friendly products. While the amounts may not be much in comparison to what’s needed, as you’ll see consistently through this book, the secret to making big change is firmly believing that one person really can make a difference.

Boyan Slat was just 18 in 2013 when he came up with this bold vision. He’s successfully funded this project and continues to collect millions of dollars. He’s won some of the most prestigious environmental awards, and he’s rolling out technological advances and ideas that while they may not be perfect, he’s at least addressing the current trash and debris problem in the oceans. For as long as someone is doing something to try and solve this problem, I will lend whatever support I can and in whatever way possible.


The source of the plastic coming into the oceans is the root of the problem, and so there should be other projects that work to address that problem. Ultimately, that problem comes from the top, all the way down to the individual that stands in the supermarket aisle deciding whether to buy twelve cases of bottled water or a SodaStream to make their own carbonated drinks. Boyan can’t be standing in the aisle with that person, or the other billions of consumers, but he is doing what he can to attack one part of this global crises.


What will you do to help cut down on the accumulation of plastic? Do you have some ideas, thoughts, or comments about this problem? Please tell us in the comments below, we'd love to hear your feedback.

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