On October 2nd, the Dutch non-profit The Ocean Cleanup announced that it has successfully developed a device that can capture and collect ocean plastic, moving the organization closer to its goal of eventually cleaning up some 90% of plastic waste that pollutes the ocean.
Amidst a sea of praise and abundant criticism from the scientific community, the Ocean Cleanup will now begin work on System 002, the 600-meter (1,969-foot) “scaled-up” version of the current 160-meter (525-foot) System 001/B test design. The group plans to deploy around 60 devices into the open ocean once testing is complete.
The problem of plastics
Plastic has crept into almost every item we use today, from cars to clothes to medical devices. In 2017, the world produced almost 350 million tons of plastic, and, since plastic doesn’t biodegrade until a thousand years after it is discarded, we now have over 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste sitting in landfills and polluting natural land and marine environments across the globe.
“We are putting a dumpster-load full of plastic trash in the ocean every minute,” said Bonnie Monteleone, Executive Director of the Plastic Ocean Project.
According to Monteleone, plastics have turned up virtually everywhere, transported by air, rain, and snow. In the ocean, plastic can look like food to marine life. Not only is it dangerous and potentially deadly for animals to munch on synthetic materials rather than food, it also increases the amount of toxins in marine life and humans who eat seafood.
The ocean’s five gyres easily and abundantly trap debris in their circulating currents.
The largest accumulation of ocean plastics is in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), located in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre between Hawaii and Northern California. An estimated 79,000 tons of ocean plastic pollutes the 1.6 million square kilometer (617,763 square mile) area, a size roughly equivalent to Alaska. The GPGP is not, as often believed, one large floating island of circulating plastic. Instead, large ropes and tiny fragments of bottle caps alike are suspended at all layers of the water column. For this reason, the exact amount of trash in the GPGP has been difficult to quantify and has attracted researchers to the area since its discovery in 1997 by oceanographer and boat captain Charles J. Moore.
Cleanup design iterations
Before founding The Ocean Cleanup in 2013, Boyan Slat suggested his idea, consisting of 24 large devices anchored to the sea floor, would allow the GPGP to “clean itself” in just five years.
Slat’s idea caught the eye of donors and environmental activists. Just two years later, he had raised over $2 million and put together a team of volunteers to assist with research and design. In June 2014, Slat presented The Ocean Cleanup’s first feasibility study and an altered cleanup design consisting of over 50 kilometers (31 miles) of a floating barrier. This design, like the original, would be anchored to the bottom of the ocean and allow the gyre’s rotating current to push the plastic into the barrier.
This design immediately generated criticism about the system’s feasibility. According to Charles Moore, a passive device with long extended arms was never a viable design. “His fantasy was that [the gyre] has a radius…” Moore said, “so [he would] create an arm equal to the radius of the circular current system… and collect all the trash. And of course, he found out he couldn’t do that.”
According to oceanographer Clark Richards, the project was poorly researched from the start. In January, Richards posted a blog about The Ocean Cleanup’s idea, explaining that gyres’ currents are considered rotary because of their general movements over long periods of time. On any given day, though, the currents can flow at various speeds and directions.
“What TOC [is] trying to do is to harness a very chaotic and unpredictable environment (the ocean and the atmosphere) to do something predictable and consistent. In my view, this is bound to fail,” Richards told Mongabay. “Even if the physics works in their favour most of the time, all it will take is one storm, with wind and waves and current not aligned the way they have designed, and the system will ‘lose’ all the debris that it has accumulated up to that point,” he said.
In August 2016, The Ocean Cleanup removed one of its battered prototypes from the North Sea after just two months of testing, but the group continued its efforts.
“You research, you test, you sometimes fail, and then you learn and you repeat until you make it work,” said Slat in May 2017 during an event to announce a complete re-design of the system.
The new design Slat announced that night was now free-floating, with no collection platform or sea-floor anchor. The idea behind this design was for the device to move with the currents, but at a slower rate than the plastic, allowing debris to bump into the device’s C-shaped arms and accumulate until a vessel arrived to take the plastic back to shore. Due to the smaller nature of this device, a fleet of devices would be deployed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Slat claimed they could manufacture the systems quickly and individually, slowly scaling up to the full fleet of devices he hoped would populate the ocean.
By August 2017, The Ocean Cleanup had locked in its design and began procuring materials, and in May 2018, construction on System 001—dubbed “Wilson”—had begun. It wasn’t until July 2018, two months before the scheduled launch date, that The Ocean Cleanup disclosed the design of the device being built in San Francisco had again changed. This version would speed up to corral the plastic instead of slowing down to let the ocean “clean itself.”
Conceptual explanation of The Ocean Cleanup’s approach to collecting, retaining, and removing plastic trash from an ocean gyre. The system has met technological challenges, prompting the group to redesign it through multiple iterations. Video by The Ocean Cleanup.
In September 2018, five years after its founding, The Ocean Cleanup launched the world’s first ocean cleanup system into the open water. Wilson reached the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on October 3. Seven weeks later, The Ocean Cleanup released a blog that stated they were having trouble retaining plastic in the device’s arms, and in December an 18-meter (59-foot) end section of the device broke off into the water. Wilson was towed back to shore.
“Although we would have liked to end the year on a more positive note, we believe these teething troubles are solvable, and the cleanup of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will be operational in 2019,” Slat wrote in The Ocean Cleanup’s December 31st blog.
Richards and other scientists were not as surprised. “There is a saying in oceanographic fieldwork: if you get your gear back, it was a successful program. If it recorded data – that’s icing on the cake,” he wrote in a January blog post.
A new design
After towing Wilson back to shore, The Ocean Cleanup moved quickly to solve issues with its design. In June 2019, it launched a new test into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, called System 001/B, to experiment with different collection options. After two months of testing, The Ocean Cleanup concluded that using a parachute as an anchor to slow down the device allowed the system to successfully retain plastic until a vessel arrived to carry the debris back to land. However, some plastic was being caught between the device and the screen that hangs in the water to collect the debris.
On October 2nd during a press conference, Slat announced that The Ocean Cleanup had developed a solution to this issue and their device was, for the first time, successfully catching and retaining plastic. According to Slat, their next steps would be to commence the scale-up process, in which they increase the size of their device to the intended 600 meters (1,969 feet), and focus on improving long-term durability of the device as well as its ability to retain plastic for longer periods of time. The scale-up process also involves eventually upgrading to a fleet of around 60 devices.
“…our vision is attainable and … the beginning of our mission to rid the ocean of plastic garbage, which has accumulated for decades, is within our sights,” said Slat.
Controversy over claims
Many scientists and activists take issue with claims such as this that frame The Ocean Cleanup as a solution to plastic pollution and redirect money and time away from proven endeavors. Monteleone, who initially supported Slat, said she could not back an organization that inflated expectations to the impossible.
“Number one, you have no idea how much plastic is out there for you to even make such a claim,” said Monteleone. “Number two, it’s not just at the surface, it’s all through the water column, so there’s no way that you can clean it all up. And number three, it continues to come into the ocean, so there’s this constant influx of more debris. Unfortunately, I think he understood that if he told people some hyperbole, that they would then throw more money at it.”
After years of such criticism from the scientific community, The Ocean Cleanup recently updated its website last week to re-frame their goals, stating that it “aim[s] to cleanup 90% of ocean plastic pollution.”
From its own research, The Ocean Cleanup had estimated that 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic float in the garbage patch, and the majority is on the surface. Still, Moore, who advised Slat on the 2015 “Mega Expedition” conducted with the Transpac sailing race, pointed out that this and other tests like it are only snapshot surveys of a vast issue, many years in the making. He agreed that there are better ways to use resources.
“It’s evil because it’s robbed funding from every serious effort to stem the tide of plastic pollution,” Moore told Mongabay. “People go out looking for funding and [hear] ‘Oh, no, we’re supporting Boyan because he’s got the real solution.’”
The Ocean Cleanup team doesn’t think that the cleanup device should be the only effort to solve plastic pollution, but rather motivation to work towards other solutions in conjunction with removing the current debris.
“It is, of course, essential to prevent more plastic from reaching the oceans, but that is not a solution for the plastics already trapped in the currents of the gyres,” the team said. “It is not a decision of either cleanup or prevention, we need to work on both cleanup AND prevention…”
Monteleone also worries about the consequences of adding devices, which are themselves made of plastic, to the ocean. “My fear is, you put 60 of these things out there, and they really have a high probability of becoming marine debris,” she said.
Plastic prevention and other options
The need for plastic prevention is echoed by many throughout the environmental community.
“People like a [cleanup] ‘solution’ because it takes the focus on the problem away from the real cause (over-production and consumption of plastic and poor global waste management), which requires major and systemic changes in how society functions,” said Richards.
Dianna Cohen, CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition (of which The Ocean Cleanup is a member organization), remembered her own desire to clean up plastic ocean debris earlier in her career, and how she re-centered her efforts on keeping it out of the ocean and reducing its use as much as possible.
Cohen also emphasized the need for systematic change. “I’d like to see extended producer responsibility and policy and legislation that hold these companies and corporations accountable to take back all of their packaging… And I’d like to see a shift to thinking reusable instead of disposable.”
Moore agreed. “All the end-of-the-pipe solutions are just window dressing, and the actual solutions are going to come from radical changes in our economic and political system that can stem the production and distribution of impossible to recover materials,” he said.
Without fully abandoning the “clean up” concept, Monteleone suggested another use for their technology: moving the devices to the mouth of rivers.
Moore agreed this idea offered the device’s greatest potential. “The only thing that it could possibly be good for is trapping stuff with the mouths of urban rivers,” he added. The Ocean Cleanup has just, in fact, added this approach to their website, suggesting the group is responding to ideas from the scientific community.
Research has shown that rivers are the largest source of ocean plastics, carrying 67 percent of the total amount of plastic that enters the ocean. Most of the top 20 polluting rivers are located in Asia, where many developed countries send their trash and recyclables.
Monteleone stated that the technology applied to rivers would be an opportunity to teach the communities about plastic waste as well as stopping it before it enters the open ocean.
“We need to help these countries with their waste management, that’s mostly our [waste] anyway,” she said.