Awareness of ocean plastic has been steadily growing for a number of years now. When we first wrote about it ten years ago, it was a problem with no solution in sight. Since then there has been a boom in alternative plastics, and improved recycling ideas to reduce the amount of plastic going into the sea. At the same time, others have been working on how we clean up what’s already out there.
A number of proposals have been floated, including garbage-eating microbes, roving waterwheels, floating cleanup cities, or giant hoover ships. Some of these are more realistic than others, and only a handful have got as far as prototyping. However, last week we saw the first large scale deployment as Ocean Cleanup launched the sea trials of their full-size cleaning array.
If there isn’t one being planned already, someone will make a movie about Ocean Cleanup one day. It began as a school project by Dutch teenager Boyan Slat, after he had seen plastic in the sea while on holiday. He looked at all the reasons why ocean plastic is such a tricky problem – the expense, the distances involved, the battering the equipment will take in the open sea – and developed a passive solution. If waste naturally washes ashore on beaches, then perhaps an artificial floating shoreline could also collect plastic.
The school project was followed up by a rigorous feasibility study, which showed it was possible. There was a TEDx talk, a record-breaking not-for-profit crowdfunding campaign, research expeditions, multiple awards, testing in the North Sea, and now an actual launch. It’s quite a story, and the organisation has ambitious goals for the future.
Of course, that story won’t amount to much if it doesn’t work, and that’s what remains to be seen. The array needs to survive at sea. It needs to collect more than just bottles or broken nets – plastic breaks down in sunlight, and it’s all the tiny fragments that are the real problem. Over 90% of ‘seafill’ is microplastic, and it doesn’t all float conveniently on the surface. At the same time as catching plastic, the array needs to avoid catching wildlife. Fish can swim underneath it, but floating creatures such as jellyfish won’t, and ecologists will be looking for its environmental impact. But that’s the point of a large scale trial, and I’ll be interested to see how it goes.
Of course, cleaning plastic out of the oceans is only one part of the challenge. Keeping it out of the oceans in the first place is critically important. We can reduce the amount of plastic we use, say farewell to the culture of disposability, and raise recycling rates. Waste infrastructure in developing countries doesn’t generate internet buzz, but ultimately it will be bin collections and recycling in places like China, Thailand and Indonesia that will safeguard the long-term health of the oceans. Ocean Cleanup is an inspiring project, but it’s important to recognise it as one part of a much larger story of changing attitudes to materials and the environment.
Now, I wonder if Boyan Slat has any ideas about space junk?