The Ocean Cleanup, Will it Float?

In addition to photography and design, I'm also a Staff Writer for the surf blog DailyStoke.com. I recently published the following article about my thoughts on The Ocean Cleanup, an effort to eliminate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. My original article can be found here. (This article is for interest/informational purposes only; all images are credited to the source site on which they were found.)

I thought I'd share one innovative idea that I'm approaching with cautious optimism. The Ocean Cleanup (www.theoceancleanup.com) is preparing to deploy its technology within 3-4 years, so hey, that's pretty much around the corner...

Image credit: The Ocean Clean-up (www.theoceancleanup.org)

Image credit: The Ocean Clean-up (www.theoceancleanup.org)

The Problem: Estimates suggest that about 8 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year jeopardizing the survival of 100+ species. A third of this plastic becomes concentrated in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (see circle 01) due to the patterns of ocean currents. While cutting down on plastic usage will help it from growing larger, this will do nothing for the copious amounts of plastic already in the ocean.

What's so bad about ocean plastic anyway? How does it kill? Well, this quick video should give you the basic idea:

A Vancouver photographer shares the shocking images he saw at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch near Hawaii.

The Solution: We have a 20-year-old Dutch kid, Boyan Slat, to thank for this idea. Here's how it will work according to The Ocean Cleanup website: "Why move through the oceans, if the oceans can move through you? Instead of going after the plastic using boats and nets, The Ocean Cleanup will use long floating barriers, using the natural movement of the ocean currents to passively concentrate the plastic itself. Virtually all of the current flows underneath these booms, taking away all (neutrally buoyant) sea life, preventing by-catch, while the lighter-than-water plastic collects in front of the floating barrier. The scalable array of floating barriers, attached to the seabed, are designed for large-magnitude deployment, covering millions of square kilometers without moving a centimeter."

Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup

Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup

The array will be deployed in the midst of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The massive floating barrier will allow ocean currents to concentrate the plastic passively while allowing marine life to pass safely under it’s shallow draft. The Ocean Cleanup estimates that this technology will allow for the cost effective removal of half of the great pacific patch in 10 years' time.
Points and props for ingenuity there, but these numbers won't hold true unless the influx of  new ocean plastic is cut off as well.

Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup

Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup

The Reality: Well, ok. This plan is all good and great on paper, mostly because humans like the idea of quick fixes for massive problems even if we know they're impractical at best (think "loose 50 pounds in JUST 2 DAYS just drink this new miracle-cleanser juicy-thingy!"). I'm not saying Slat's plan won't work, I'm just saying there are a lot more variables at play which appear to be unaccounted for.

Image credit: http://time.com/2966210/typhoon-neoguri-space/ Typhoon Neoguri which pounded Japan in 2014. Approximately the same location as the Ocean Cleanup Array will deploy.

Image credit: http://time.com/2966210/typhoon-neoguri-space/
Typhoon Neoguri which pounded Japan in 2014. Approximately the same location as the Ocean Cleanup Array will deploy.

The biggest variable working against the Cleanup Array is the ocean herself. According to Stiv Wilson (policy director of the ocean conservation nonprofit 5Gyres.org) in his Inhabitant article, "The Fallacy of Cleaning the Gyres of Plastic With a Floating "Ocean Cleanup Array": "Beyond the size of the ocean, the sea is one giant corrosive force. Even on just a month-long sail across The South Atlantic, we tore our sails twice, broke some rigging, and utterly destroyed a wind-powered generator—all due to the force of nature. Any blue water sailor will tell you about how destructive the sea is to anything with moving parts. That’s why sailors say, ‘a boat is a hole you fill with money.’ Heck, outer space is less corrosive to machines than the ocean is." Read the rest of his article here. A valid point. How many storms pass through the pacific each year? How will the anchors reach through the depths to pin the array without breaking somewhere along the tether?

Image credit: Stiv Wilson

Image credit: Stiv Wilson

Additionally, ocean plastic in the patch generally doesn't come in the form of Dasani bottles (anymore)... You can't turn it in for 5-cents a pop like you can on land. Over time, UV rays break down polymer chains. With constant exposure in the ocean, most of what remains are bits and pieces of something that once was but no longer is. This disintegration and lack of structural integrity of these sunburned plastics makes them incredibly difficult to collect and recycle.

So, will it work? I don't know. But there is a positive take home message here: Even if this isn't the right solution, it's a forward thinking step in the right direction. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a problem of human origin out there in the big-blue, and as such, we are responsible for fixing it. We cannot simply crumple at the ocean's vastness. We need to spread awareness, think outside the box, and take action on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other environmental problems of human origin. So good on you in that regard, young Mr. Slat!

For more information, and to contribute, please visit http://www.theoceancleanup.com On June 3rd 2014, Boyan Slat gave the long-awaited sequel to his 2012 TEDx Talk, in New York City, USA. After researching for a year with a team of about 100 people, 19-year-old Boyan Slat finally spoke out, and presented the results.