There are currently over five trillion pieces of plastic floating around our oceans. Probably everyone on the planet would agree that we should work to keep our oceans clean, but until now there were very few real solutions. Back in 2012, a young man by the name of Boyan Slat made it his mission to rectify this growing global problem.
Understanding the problem
Within the planet’s oceans there are at least five major currents—called gyres—where trash and debris get carried around the world. As the trash circulates, it eventually breaks down into small particles—especially plastic. Fish then eat this plastic, and eventually, people end up eating some of these fish. It’s a problem that has widespread implications for the ecology of our planet.
The Great Pacific Garbage patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, is one such gyre located in the central North Pacific Ocean. This area, which is akin to a literal island of trash, is the largest and by no means the only area of marine debris in the oceans. The photo below show the variety of plastic debris in the Great Pacific Garbage patch.
Devising a plan of attack
To combat the problem of ocean litter, Boyan proposed the idea of building floating filtration platforms, also referred to as passive drifting systems, situated within the gyres themselves and anchored to the ocean floor. Since most trash (especially plastic) floats on or near the surface of the ocean, natural wave motion could force water through the filters with no resource expenditure necessary, and without endangering fish and other ocean life. The concentrated plastic would be brought back to shore for recycling, the revenue from which would be used to expand the cleanup to the other four ocean gyres.
Boyan decided to pursue this idea in 2012 while still in primary school, and began building a team when he entered university, which today consists of over 70 engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modelers from around the world. The non-profit Ocean Cleanup was officially founded in 2013 with the goal to deploy systems that clean up 50 percent of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the next five years.
That same year, Boyan met Bertrand Sicot, who was then CEO of SOLIDWORKS. Sicot resolved to help the team by connecting them with the global community of SOLIDWORKS users for engineering expertise and also collaborated with the team on two contests and invited Boyan to attend both a SOLIDWORKS launch event and SOLIDWORKS World to help get his message in front of the North American press.
In 2014, the group completed a large-scale feasibility study, which helped them decide how to proceed with design, implementation and operation. The team learned many things during this stage, the biggest of which was that the idea is, in fact, feasible. They also learned that the original design of their filtration platforms would likely not survive the harsh conditions found in the Pacific Ocean, and created a new design that is less beautiful, but will actually work.
That same year, they launched a crowdfunding initiative to raise money to continue their efforts and build a functional prototype. That campaign was a huge success and raised $2.2 million through donations from over 38,000 individuals from 160 countries, making it the most successful non-profit crowdfunding campaign to date.
In August of 2015, 30 vessels crossed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, mapping an area measuring 3.5 million square kilometers and collected more data on ocean plastic than had been collected in the past 40 years. The physical properties of the ocean plastic are not only key design constraints for the cleanup system but also the number-one metric when it comes to the economics of a cleanup operation. Aerial expeditions followed in 2016 to attempt to accurately quantify the most harmful debris, discarded fishing gear, called ghost nets.
The following summer, the first North Sea Prototype was created and the team put its barrier to the test in the open ocean for the first time. The North Sea serves as a great test bed since it has a strong tidal current and short, steep wave patterns. Since that initial test, a series of prototypes have been tested there with the goal of gaining experience in deploying offshore structures.
Just last month, a new prototype was deployed in the North Sea, one of the last steps before the team prepares to launch the first cleanup system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch this summer.
“The first time I met with Boyan in 2012 was at Delft University,” says Sicot. “I saw right away his commitment to address this issue of plastic ocean pollution and create something totally new from scratch. He was already thinking out of the box. His passion was communicative. I remember also a conversation with his mother at SOLIDWORKS World and she said, ‘Boyan is on a mission, this is the mission of his life.’ Now, five years after, the proof is there.”
The first official cleanup system will be deployed mid-year, after which the team will monitor and access its behavior. All lessons learned will be applied to the subsequent system. The team will gradually deploy more systems until it reaches full-scale deployment in 2020.
Want to get involved? The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization, is looking to bridge funding from the pilot phase to the scale-up phase so donations are welcome. You can contribute by contacting them at email@example.com.