Nature isn’t doomed if we work fast enough.
That’s the essential premise fueling The Ocean Cleanup, an organization that hopes to pull an unbelievable amount of plastic waste from the Pacific Ocean in the next decade.
“The story has always been: We can’t clean it up, so the best thing we can do is not make it worse,” Boyan Slat, Ocean Cleanup founder, told The Huffington Post in a Skype interview. “To me, that’s depressing.”
That is depressing. Imagine Earth as a stewing mound of sun-baked waste that everyone’s standing on, nostrils clenched shut by fingers. Some may do their part to avoid making the mound bigger, but how many are able to make it smaller?
Slat thinks his team can.
The Ocean Cleanup, which is funded in large part by entrepreneurs like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, recently collected data on the plastic trash in the North Pacific Ocean as part of its “Mega Expedition.” Crews on nearly 30 ships used a smartphone app and other tools to keep track of the plastic they observed in the water. Slat needs the data to help enact an ambitious plan: the deployment of a massive aquatic barrier that will corral trash into a concentrated area for collection.
“This is the first time anyone’s ever quantified the large debris — things like crates, bottles, buoys and nets,” Slat told HuffPost.
“The amount of large stuff really was a surprise. It was a lot more big stuff than small stuff by a factor of 100 or 1,000. Some is still to be analyzed, but it’s clear there’s a lot more plastic out there than expected,” he continued.
(Story continues below slideshow.)
Here’s the good news: While the amount of plastic waste was shocking, the problem can be remedied. In 2020, The Ocean Cleanup plans to place a 62-mile trash-capturing structure in the water between Hawaii and California. You could think of it like a series of walls connected to the seabed roughly three miles beneath the surface.
It will be in a “V” shape and look something like the rendering below — a mock-up set near Tsushima Island, Japan, where the Ocean Cleanup hopes to place a test unit next year:
While it’s obviously not so easy to develop and deploy in practice, the technology is simple in theory: The wall takes advantage of the natural movement of ocean currents, therefore allowing the trash to pile up on its own.
“Instead of going after the plastic using nets and vessels, which would take an infinite amount of time, we developed this system,” Slat told HuffPost. “The plastic moves toward the center, and therefore the concentration increases 100,000 times. You really can walk on the water.”
Once the garbage is concentrated, vessels can pick it up and take it for recycling. The Ocean Cleanup group believes that after 10 years, the structure will have removed a substantial portion of the waste in the North Pacific.
Of course, great as this idea is, the rest of the planet is responsible for coming up with sustainable solutions to avoid refilling the water with plastic, which ends up being consumed by animals.
“The concentration of plastic in the ocean is increasing. The influx is increasing exponentially. Governments and organizations need to step up their game,” Slat told HuffPost.
On a macro level, more regulations could be implemented to cut down on the plastic waste that comes from even simple things like packaging and grocery bags. Companies can use more biodegradable materials in their products.
Individuals can push for all of this to happen while making small changes in their own lives. Take a reusable tote to the grocery store instead of using plastic bags. Recycle. Use a refillable water bottle.
Meanwhile, The Ocean Cleanup continues to move forward.
“It’s sort of a ticking time bomb,” Slat told HuffPost of marine debris. “The stuff doesn’t go away by itself. It needs to be cleaned up and it needs to happen soon.”
If it doesn’t happen soon, the larger plastics might break down into micro-plastics, which are much harder to manage. Slat hopes his group’s work will inspire.
“We hope to make millions of people aware of the problem itself, as well as making the problem visible,” Slat said. “By showing there is a way, we can make it better.”