Article updated on 8 February 2022 by Ben Pilkington
Millions of tons of plastic make their way into the world’s oceans every year, which are currently polluted with approximately 5 trillion pieces of plastic waste. Most are carried into the oceans from rivers, and, once in the sea, some get captured in currents that carry them to one of five ocean gyres, or “garbage patches.”
Image Credit: Theodore Trimmer/Shutterstock.com
What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
The largest of these patches is situated between Hawaii and California and is known as the “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Also referred to as the Pacific Trash Vortex, the gyre spans more than 617,000 square miles, more than twice the size of France.
Most of the plastic is “ghost gear,” abandoned fishing nets, and ropes that often strangle or suffocate animals. Other discarded plastic is eaten by animals that often die from starvation because they cannot feed properly.
Up to 90% of plastic produced never gets recycled, and because it can take hundreds of years to degrade, researchers think almost every single piece ever manufactured still exists today in some form, somewhere.
Without action being taken to both remove existing plastic in the sea and interrupt its inflow from rivers, this pollution will continue to have a devastating effect on wildlife, ecosystems, and, eventually, human health.
The Solution to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: The Ocean Cleanup Project
Founded by entrepreneur Boyan Slat in 2013, The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization that has been carrying out what it refers to as “the largest clean-up in history”. This ambitious, two-pronged project rolled out advanced technological systems at a scale large enough to remove half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (around 40,000 metric tons) over five years. They also worked to interrupt the flow of plastic at the river source.
The nonprofit says that with enough fleets of systems deployed in every ocean gyre and with the inflow from rivers reduced, it should be able to clean up 90% of all plastic ocean waste by 2040.
The first phase of the project, cleaning the oceans, was thought up by Slat following a holiday in Greece where he saw more plastic than fish while diving. After learning more about the problem, he started working on a passive clean-up solution at university and eventually founded The Ocean Cleanup.
Slat has designed a passive ocean-based cleaning system consisting of a long plastic floating tube, which is approximately the length of a football pitch suspended at the water’s surface. A nylon skirt extending below that guides debris into a retention system that concentrates the plastic for collection.
Interceptor: The River Cleaning Solution
Research conducted by the Ocean Cleanup established that 1,000 rivers are responsible for around 80% of river-borne plastic waste in the ocean. The organization plans to have tackled all of them by 2025.
The second part of the project involves a clean-up technology called the Interceptor, which is an automated debris filtration and extraction system that can operate in most of the world’s top polluting rivers.
Slat said: “Combining our ocean clean-up technology with the Interceptor, the solutions now exist to address both sides of the equation.”
Harnessing Natural Forces to Clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Actively cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch using traditional methods such as nets and vessels would be too energy-intensive, cost billions, and would take thousands of years to complete.
With the Ocean Cleanup’s passive system, which is guided through garbage patches by natural forces (wind, waves, and current), half of the plastic debris could be removed in just five years at a fraction of the cost. This passive harnessing of natural forces also increases the system’s ability to withstand hazardous ocean environments.
When Slat first proposed the design, some scientists were skeptical about its feasibility. However, Slat left university to pursue the project, and The Ocean Cleanup raised millions through a crowdfunding campaign and millions more from other investors, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.
How Does the Ocean Cleanup Project's Technology Work?
The developed technology creates a drag that allows swirling plastic to be captured and concentrated for effective removal from the ocean. Huge anchors floating hundreds of feet below steady the system while it moves more slowly than the plastic, scooping it up from behind.
The first device, System 001, was made up of a 2000 ft floater tube, a 9.8 ft-wide skirt, and incorporated solar-powered GPS, cameras, and lanterns. It was deployed in San Francisco in September 2018 to gather plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. However, the system failed to retain plastic and was returned to shore in January 2019. After several design modifications by the engineering team, an upgraded version, System 001/B, was deployed in June 2019.
On October 2, 2019, the Ocean Cleanup announced that system 001/B had passively captured plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, proving the technology’s foundational concept and meaning the team could start work on their next upgrade, System 002.
The engineering team has designed System 002 as a more extensive, full-scale operation with a focus on autonomous navigation, long-term plastic retention, and durability at sea.
On December 2, 2019, in Vancouver, Canada, the Ocean Cleanup presented the first plastic captured and collected with the passive system while it was self-contained in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Intercepting River Plastic Guided by Natural Currents
As well as capturing the trillions of tons of ocean plastic already out there, Slat aims to close the tap on the 1,000 highest polluting rivers that are feeding 80% of all river-borne plastic into the oceans. By collaborating with government leaders and private corporations, the Ocean Cleanup plans to have tackled all these rivers by 2025.
On October 26, 2019, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Slat unveiled The Interceptor, the world’s first scalable solution to interrupting the river-to-ocean plastic flow that can be deployed across the globe. This system can be strategically placed to intercept the main flow of debris while allowing boats to pass and not impede wildlife movement.
It can extract 50,000 kg of waste per day and even 100,000 kg per day under optimal conditions. All electronics incorporated into the system, including a conveyor belt, shuttle, lights, and sensors, are 100% solar powered.
So far, the Ocean Cleanup has built four of the systems. One has been deployed in Jakarta, Indonesia, one in Klang, Malaysia, and a third is waiting to be installed in CanTho, Vietnam. A fourth is due to be deployed in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Thailand has also agreed to the Interceptor being deployed in a river near Bangkok, and agreements with other governments are approaching completion, including one in Los Angeles County, California.
New Interceptor Solutions To Clean More Rivers | The Ocean Cleanup
Video Credit: The Ocean Cleanup/YouTube.com
How Does the River Cleaner Work?
River waste flowing with the natural current enters the Interceptor and is carried onto a conveyor belt that delivers the debris to a shuttle. Guided by sensors, the waste is distributed by the shuttle into one of six dumpsters, which are each filled until they reach full capacity (up to 50 m3). Once the barge is almost full, an automated text alerts locals, who bring it to shore, empty the debris and send it to local waste management centers, before returning the barge to the Interceptor.
For more information about how the river cleaner works, watch the video below:
Turning Marine Plastic Waste into “Beautiful, Sustainable Products”
From the start, The Ocean Cleanup had planned to recycle the marine plastic it collects, and on December 12, 2019, after presenting the first plastic captured from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Slat also announced the plan to turn it into “beautiful, sustainable products.”
The Ocean Cleanup was designed to turn the marine plastic waste it collects into sustainable products that could be sold to fund the continuation of its clean-ups. After announcing the first capture of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Slat announced his plans to launch the premier products in September 2020.
Welcoming the first catch of plastic on land is the moment we have been looking forward to for years. I believe we can use this trash to turn a problem into a solution by transforming this unique material into a beautiful product.
The organization plans to launch its premier plastic product in September 2020, and use 100% of all proceeds to contribute to the continuation of The Ocean Cleanup project.
Slat said: “As most people will never go to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, through these products, we aim to give everyone the opportunity to take part in the clean-up.”
The Ocean Cleanup Project in Numbers
The Ocean Cleanup Project works with a third-party evaluation and validation partner to provide accurate and reliable figures to measure its impact on the ocean plastic problem. DNV, the organization that developed the ocean plastic standard used by nonprofits, authorities, and researchers to define plastic pollution, is well suited to provide expert impartial validation of the Ocean Cleanup Project’s impact.
DNV gets its information by trawling through the Ocean Cleanup Project’s documents, data from remote sensing devices, offloading records from ocean catches, receipts from waste collectors or waste management companies, photographs, log files for various data sources, internal emails and messages, transport records, and peer-reviewed scientific papers.
The first verified figures were released for the calendar year, 2020 in May 2021. They showed that the organization removed 235,505 kg of plastic waste from oceans and rivers in 2020.
While only a drop in the ocean compared to the millions of tons of plastic that enters the sea each year, this baseline figure was cause for celebration for the Ocean Cleanup Project. It represents a good starting point for the organization, as well as showing the determination of staff around the world despite COVID-19 and lockdown measures severely hampering their ability to work to remove the plastic.
Ocean Cleanup Project staff are confident that their impact, measured in kilograms of retrieved plastic, will increase in 2021. The organization has tripled the number of deployments to the rivers carrying plastic waste into the oceans, as well as launching System 002 in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the summer.
Provisional figures for 2021 are already extremely promising. The Ocean Cleanup Project reported that 464,920 kg of plastic was removed from circulation between the start of January and the end of March 2021, nearly double the total for 2020. At this rate, the project will increase its impact by 800% between 2020 and 2021.
What Will the Ocean Cleanup Project Do Next?
The Ocean Cleanup Project is not slowing down. Having been devising and deploying innovative plastic clean-up solutions for oceans and rivers for the last eight years, the nonprofit is now poised to scale up both operations and start to make a tangible impact on the plastic pollution problem.
System 003 will follow System 002 into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in mid-2022. From mid-2023, more systems will be deployed to the Pacific patch as the Ocean Cleanup Project embarks on full fleet operations.
From 2026 onwards, fleets will be deployed to the four other garbage patches. Researchers will begin the mapping work for this to take place in early 2022.
At the same time, the nonprofit will be significantly expanding its fleet of Interceptors in the 1000 or so rivers around the world sending approximately 80% of plastic waste into the oceans.
References and Further Reading
The largest clean-up in history. [Online] The Ocean Cleanup. Available at: https://theoceancleanup.com/
River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans. [Online] The Ocean Cleanup. Available at: https://theoceancleanup.com/sources/
How it works. The Interceptor. [Online] The Ocean Cleanup. Available at: https://theoceancleanup.com/rivers/
Passive clean-up system: How it works. [Online] The Ocean Cleanup. Available at: https://theoceancleanup.com/oceans/
FAQ. The Ocean Cleanup [Online] Available at: https://theoceancleanup.com/faq/
Take ocean cleaning into your own hands. [Online] The Ocean Cleanup. Available at: https://products.theoceancleanup.com/
What is the Interceptor? [Online] The Ocean Cleanup. Available at: https://theoceancleanup.com/faq/what-is-the-interceptor/
The ocean clean-up Interceptor [Online] The Ocean Cleanup. Available at: https://assets.theoceancleanup.com/app/uploads/2019/10/191021_Interceptor-Spec-Sheet.pdf
Bridget Cogley (2019) The Ocean Cleanup to make products from collected marine plastic. [Online] Dezeen. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2019/12/17/the-ocean-cleanup-plastic-products-great-pacific-garbage-patch/
Eleanor Gibson (2019) The Ocean Cleanup suspended as device breaks down in Pacific Ocean. [Online] Dezeen. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2019/01/07/ocean-cleanup-suspended-pacific-plastic/
Mission one completed – The plans to make products from the plastic catch. [Online] The Ocean Cleanup. Available at: https://theoceancleanup.com/updates/mission-one-completed-the-plans-to-make-products-from-the-plastic-catch/
Adele Peters (2018) The revolutionary giant Ocean Cleanup machine is about to set sail. [Online] Fast Company. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/40560810/the-revolutionary-giant-ocean-cleanup-machine-is-about-to-set-sail
The ocean clean-up successfully catches plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Ocean Cleanup. Available at: https://theoceancleanup.com/updates/the-ocean-cleanup-successfully-catches-plastic-in-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch/
Jane Dalton (2018). World's first ocean plastic-cleaning machine set to tackle Great Pacific Garbage Patch. [Online] Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/ocean-plastic-cleanup-machine-great-pacific-garbage-patch-launch-boyan-slat-a8317226.html