A 21-year old Dutch scientist and inventor, Boyan Slat, is getting ready to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
He’s not heading out there with a scuba suit and and an armful of garbage bags.
His plan is more imaginative and a little more... oceanic.
What he’s dealing with
Each year, 8 million tons, or 16 billion pounds (7.2 billion kilograms) of plastic enter the world’s oceans. There are about 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans today.
Each week, 2 Empire State Building’s worth of plastic enter the oceans.
Think about how much a piece of plastic weighs. Different kinds of plastic weigh different amounts (a soda bottle, a plastic grocery bag, a tupperware container), but they’re usually not that heavy. That’s part of plastic’s appeal: it’s durable yet easy to manipulate and use.
This seeming weightlessness, along with its ubiquity, leads people to use plastic for everything, while also treating it carelessly.
And that carelessness is why the oceans are choking with plastic: there’s so much of it being produced, and then so much it being thrown away rather than reused or recycled.
While it’s broadly understood that the oceans have a plastic problem, the actual scale of the problem is hard to fathom.
Some estimates of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the biggest of the plastic accumulations) say that it is twice the size of the US and about 9 feet deep.
Since plastic is so light, it is carried along by currents, eventually ending up in these massive rotating currents called gyres.
Past attempts to deal with the patch haven’t really gone anywhere. The problem is so massive that scientists generally consider it as waves of resignation wash over them. So most policymakers have advised an approach of crisis control: rather than dealing with all the existing plastic, limit how much plastic joins the patch in the future.
While enacting better recycling programs is essential, no effective solution can end here.
Plastic pollution in the oceans has too many consequences. It kills millions of creatures every year, poisons millions or billions of other creatures and causes billions in economic damages.
Plus, the longer plastic sits in the ocean, the more likely it will begin to deteriorate, turning into microplastic, which is far more difficult to remove and even more dangerous to animals.
As the ocean gets filled with plastic, vibrant ecosystems get hollowed out.
Boyan didn’t wake up one morning and start cleaning up the ocean. His plan has gone through years worth of refinement and outside collaboration. The enterprise is called The Ocean Cleanup.
By 2020, his team plans to get the program rolled out and will start removing plastic at an unprecedented rate.
His system essentially uses the rotating nature of the gyres to gradually drag the plastic to a v-shaped accumulation zone that does not disrupt marine life.
By 2030, the team plans to remove 42% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. By 2040, they predict the patch can be entirely cleared.
The 21 year old’s plan is revolutionary when compared to current efforts that would take 79,000 years to clear the Garbage Patch.
I think we can all agree that the oceans can’t wait that long. While Boyan and his team take care of what is in the ocean already, let’s stop adding to the problem.