Soumac WOW blog – The Ocean Cleanup

After five years in the making, the Ocean Cleanup initiative officially launched its first fleet system, System 001, earlier this week (8th September 2018) off the coast of San Francisco in a bid to help eradicate rubbish found in the ocean.

Developed by Danish inventor Boyan Slat and his team of seventy engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modellers, the new state-of-the-art technology is promising to clean up half the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ in 5 years’ time – with the group’s ultimate aim being to rid the world’s ocean of 90% of its plastic by 2040.

In this month’s blog, Soumac takes a closer look at the initiative and how its technology will work:

How the technology works

Described as the world’s ‘first feasible method to rid the world’s oceans of plastic’, the solar powered 600-meter-long floating system works with the oceans current to scoop up rubbish, using a 3 meter deep skirt. The floater provides buoyancy and prevents plastic from flowing over it, while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath. As the system continues its journey, the plastic is collected within the boundaries of the U-shaped fleet and a ship is sent out every six to eight weeks to collect the rubbish for recycling.

One issue the organisation faced when designing the system was how it would be powered. Initially, the system was going to be anchored, however engineers soon realised that wind and wave drift loads on the floater were higher than previously estimated. This caused the system to travel at a speed too fast to catch plastic. To combat this issue, Slat decided to use the higher winds to their advantage, by removing the anchors and letting the system travel with the current to create a more effective capture rate.

If the current mission proves successful, the organisation plans to put a further 60 systems in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and reach full-scale deployment by 2020.

History of The Ocean Cleanup

After seeing the effects of plastic pollution in Greece first hand, Slat set up The Ocean Cleanup in 2013 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Initially, the designer had planned to base his design on the same principles used to contain oil spills, but soon realised it wouldn’t work. It was then after this that Slat came up with the current proposed model, and since then a team of engineers have been working on the System 001 prototype in San Francisco Bay, ready for this month’s launch.

Advantages of the technology

Humans aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the technology. Plastic pollution has had a massive impact on marine life in recent years, with more than one million seabirds and other marine species dying due to pollution every year. However, if The Ocean Cleanup can deliver on its promise to remove up to 50% of plastic, this will go a long way to helping marine life avoid the harmful effects of humans on their habitat.

As well as pollution, microplastics are another issue the technology hopes to tackle. Over time, in a process known as photodegradation, UV radiation causes large plastic objects to fragment into smaller pieces – which are even harder to extract and harmful to sea life, who consume these microplastics and transport toxic chemicals into the food chain.

Potential drawbacks

While the system has received a lot of praise, it has also raised some concern – with many scientists arguing that the system could harm marine life.

There’s also the question of how the system will avoid shipping pathways. However, Slat is quick to point out that the garbage patches are far and wide, meaning vessels crossing through the area is rare. As well as this, the system is fitted with on-board cameras, GPS trackers, radar reflectors and AIS transmissions to prevent potential collisions.

Furthermore, critics are sceptical of the systems effectiveness and remind us that the system is not an overall solution. Much of the plastic in our oceans ends up on the sea floor, which the system can’t reach. There is also concern surrounding the durability of the system; over time the system will inevitably ware, which could cause breakage that would ironically be released into the ocean. Some argue it is better to concentrate efforts on raising awareness surrounding plastic pollution, to stop it from entering our oceans in the first place.

There is no question education has to be the long term solution to eradicating plastics from our oceans; however, there is no denying Slat’s technology is exciting and a big step forward towards tackling the plastic pollution that exists now. While it may not be perfect and its effectiveness is currently untested, it will certainly be interesting to see how the first mission goes and if it’ll be applied further.

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