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The Ocean Cleanup

16 Aug 2022 9:12 AM | Tyler Eldridge (Administrator)

In a blog post written back in 2019, when our problems were slightly less PFAS and COVID related, I mentioned a small, non-profit startup out of the Netherlands that had been working on a method to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A few times a year I try to check in and see how progress is going, but one of the recent e-mail updates I received from their organization compelled me to pass some updates along to our group.

After a scuba diving adventure revealed that there seemed to be more plastic in the ocean than fish, a 16 year old, Boyan Slat began to turn his focus towards the idea of “just cleaning this up.” Following the momentum of his 2012 TedX talk, he founded The Ocean Cleanup, an organization focused on removing the mass amounts of large plastic debris that collect in various patches across the world’s oceans. The idea was multi-pronged; clean-up and remove the debris from the ocean as economically and environmentally friendly as possible, focus on recycling the plastic recovered once back on land, and do so while eliminating as much bycatch as possible.

The idea behind recovering the plastic is to create an artificial coastline to help concentrate the plastic and force it into a collection net that can later be recovered by another vessel. Imagine two boats hundreds of meters apart, with a long, shallow net between them that lags behind in a u-shaped arc. The plastic is funneled to the tail end of the “U” where it is recovered and processed on the way back to shore. Using this model, two iterations of the system have effectively been deployed, with a 3rd iteration (3 times the size of the second) that began its transition in July. The second system, System 002, has already successfully removed over 100,000 kg of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. While it may require 1000 more collections of this magnitude to clear this particular patch, the emergence of System 03 projects to collect plastic at potentially 10 times the rate of the previous system. The ability to upscale creates an opportunity to collect much more than 100,000 kg of plastic per year from this patch alone.

At current rates of plastic emissions, by 2050 the oceans could contain nearly 4 times the amount of floating plastic than were seen in 2020. This is a major issue, and with water quality and availability decreasing throughout many regions of the world, one could assume treatment of saltwater from the oceans may be required to bridge the gap. If the source of saltwater is also tainted with mass amounts of plastic, the microplastic issue becomes even more compounded as those larger plastics continuously breakdown. This is where The Ocean Cleanup’s goal of “90% reduction of floating ocean plastic by 2040” becomes more of a necessity than just a goal. With the deployment of System 03, their models predict that as few as 10 systems could be needed to clean the entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A larger, more efficient system also means that the cost per kilogram removed is reduced.

Research, development and innovation doesn’t stop here for The Ocean Cleanup. With new systems being developed seemingly on a yearly basis, they are also focusing on the source of the plastic emissions; rivers. According to their research, 1000 rivers across the world are responsible for nearly 80% of plastic pollution. Enter the new river Interceptor Barrier, Tender, and Trashfence. Already the team has deployed these devices in various rivers throughout the world, with more well on the way!

The goals are lofty, but with one major milestone surpassed, they also seem within reach. Given all the talk of microplastics and various other pollutants in our world, it’s easy to forget just how much resides in the oceans themselves. The world needed a few great minds to put their focus on an issue at the back of most of our lists, and The Ocean Cleanup is just that! I definitely recommend checking out their website and signing up for e-mail updates and newsletters, as it has given me a greater source of optimism to focus on!

Tyler Eldridge works for the City of Greeley's Wastewater Treatment and Reclamation Facility as their Data and Asset manager and prior Lab Coordinator.

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