The Ocean Cleanup
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|Founded at||Delft, Netherlands|
|Purpose||Cleaning the oceans|
The Ocean Cleanup is non-government engineering environmental organization based in Netherlands, that develops technology to extract plastic pollution from the oceans. The organization was founded in 2013 by Boyan Slat, a Dutch-born inventor-entrepreneur of Croatian origin who serves as its CEO.
The approach involves placing barriers in ocean gyres to scoop up marine debris as the barrier is pushed by wind and current. The project aims to launch a total of 60 such systems in the patch by 2021. They predict this capability could clean up 50% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years.
The organization conducts scientific research into oceanic plastic pollution. It has conducted two expeditions to the North Pacific Gyre, and publicized scientific papers.
Slat proposed the cleanup project and supporting system in 2012. In October Slat held a TED-talk where he proposed the approach. The initial design consisted of long, floating barriers fixed to the seabed, attached to a central platform shaped like a manta ray for stability. The barriers would direct the floating plastic to the central platform, which would remove the plastic from the water. Slat did not specify the dimensions of this system in the talk.
2014 - revisions
In 2014, the design was revised, replacing the central platform with a tower detached from the floating barriers. This platform would collect the plastic using a conveyor belt. The floating barrier was proposed to be 100 km long. In 2015, this design won the London Design Museum Design of the Year. and the INDEX: Award.
2015 - scale model tests
In 2015, scale model tests were conducted in controlled environments. Tests took place in wave pools at Deltares and MARIN. The purpose was to test the dynamics and load of the barrier, when exposed to currents and waves, and to gather data for continued computational modeling.
2016 - open sea tests
A 100-metre segment went through a test in the North Sea, off the coast of the Netherlands in the summer of 2016. The purpose was to test the endurance of the materials chosen and the connections between elements. The test indicated that conventional oil containment booms could not endure the harsh environments the system would face. They changed the floater material to a hard-walled HDPE pipe, which is flexible enough to follow the waves, and rigid enough to maintain its open U-shape. More prototypes were deployed to test component endurance.
On May 11, 2017, The Ocean Cleanup announced the next step is to test their new drifting system in the North Pacific in 2017.
In May 2017, significant changes to the design were made:
- The dimensions were drastically reduced, from 100 km to 1–2-kilometre (0.62–1.24 mi). The Ocean Cleanup suggested using a fleet of approximately 60 such systems.
- The seabed anchors were replaced with sea anchors, allowing it to drift with the currents, but moving more slowly. This allowed the plastic to "catch up" with the cleanup system. The lines to the anchor would keep the system in a U-shape. This design allows the system to drift to locations with the highest concentration of debris.
- An automatic system for collecting the plastic was dropped. Instead, the system would concentrate the plastic before for removal by support vessels.
The Ocean Cleanup performed more scale model tests in 2018. The sea anchors were removed because the wind moved the system faster than the plastic. The opening of the U would face the direction of travel, which would be achieved by having the underwater screen deeper in the middle of the system, creating more drag.
On September 9, 2018, System 001 (nicknamed Wilson in reference to the floating soccer ball in the 2000 film Cast Away) deployed from San Francisco. The ship Maersk Launcher towed the system to a position 240 nautical miles off the coast, where it was put through a series of sea trials.
When the tests were complete, it was towed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for real-world duty. It arrived on October 16, 2018, and was deployed in operational configuration. System 001 encountered difficulties retaining the plastic collected. The system collected debris, but soon lost it because the barrier traveled too slowly.
In November, the project attempted to open the mouth of the U widened by 60-70 m. This was not successful. In January 2019 the system was brought back to shore after a break in the structure was observed due to mechanical stress. Before the retreat, the system had captured some 2,000 kg of plastic.
The system uses passive floating structures localized in the ocean gyres, where marine debris tends to accumulate. These structures act as a containment boom. The boom drifts with the wind, waves and ocean currents to capture marine debris. A solid screen underneath the floating pipe catches subsurface debris. The system requires no external energy.
The first deployment, System 001, consisted of a 600 metres (2,000 ft) long barrier with a 3 metres (9.8 ft) wide skirt that hangs beneath it. It is made from HDPE, and consists of 50x12 m sections joined together. It was unmanned and incorporates solar-powered monitoring and navigation systems, including GPS, cameras, lanterns and AIS. The barrier and the screen mounting were produced in Austria by an Austrian supplier.
In August 2015, The Ocean Cleanup conducted its so-called Mega Expedition, in which a fleet of approximately 30 vessels, including lead ship R/V Ocean Starr, crossed the Great Pacific garbage patch and mapped an area of 3.5 million square kilometers. The expedition collected data on the size, concentration and total mass of the plastic in the patch. According to the organization, this expedition collected more data on oceanic plastic pollution than the last 40 years combined.
In September and October 2016, The Ocean Cleanup launched its Aerial Expedition, in which a C-130 Hercules aircraft conducted a series of aerial surveys of the Great Pacific garbage patch. The goal was specifically to quantify the amount of large debris, including ghosts nets in the patch. Slat stated that the crew saw a lot more debris than expected.
The project released an app called The Ocean Cleanup Survey App, which enables others to survey the ocean for plastic, and report their observations to The Ocean Cleanup.
In February 2015, the research team published a study in Biogeosciences about the vertical distribution of plastic, based on samples collected in the North Atlantic Gyre. They found that the plastic concentration decreases exponentially with depth, with the highest concentration at the surface, and approaching zero just a few meters deeper. A follow-up paper was published in Scientific Reports in October 2016.
In June 2017, researchers published a paper in Nature Communications, with a model of the river plastic input into the ocean. Their model estimates that between 1.15 and 2.41 million metric tonnes of plastic enter the world's oceans every year, with 86% of the input stemming from rivers in Asia.
In December 2017, they published a paper in Environmental Science & Technology about pollutants in oceanic plastic, based upon data from the Mega Expedition. They found that 84% of their plastic samples had at least one PBT chemical with concentrations exceeding safe levels. Furthermore, they found 180 times more plastic than naturally occurring biomass on the surface in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
On March 22, 2018, The Ocean Cleanup published a paper in Scientific Reports, summarizing the combined findings from the Mega- and Aerial Expedition. They estimate that the Patch contains 1.8 trillion pieces of floating plastic, with a total mass of 79,000 metric tonnes. Microplastics (< 0.5 cm) make up 94 % of the pieces, accounting for 8% of the mass. The study suggests that the amount of plastic in the patch increased exponentially since 1970.
The Ocean Cleanup is mainly funded by donations and sponsors. As of 2017 it had received over $31.5 million in donations since foundation, from sponsors including Salesforce.com chief executive Marc Benioff, philanthropist Peter Thiel, Julius Baer Foundation and Royal DSM. The Ocean Cleanup raised over 2 million USD with the help of a crowdfunding campaign in 2014.
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Criticisms and doubts about method, feasibility, efficiency and return on investment have been raised in the scientific community about the project. These include:
- The approach by itsself cannot solve the whole problem. Plastic in the oceans is spread far beyond the gyres; experts estimate that less than 5% of all the plastic pollution which enters the oceans makes its way into any of the garbage patches.: Much of the plastic that does is not floating at the surface.
- The 5 Gyres Institute criticized the Environmental Impact Report and did not examine alternatives, such as having fishermen recover plastic pollution. Slat responded that conventional methods like vessels and nets would be inefficient in terms of time and costs.
- Marcus Eriksen et al. (2014) reported that 92% of marine plastic is smaller than microplastics and would escape the system. Microplastic and synthetic fibers have been discovered frozen into ice cores, abundant on the sea floor, and on every beach worldwide. Along the way, it passes through the bodies of billions of organisms. The study shows that plastic mass is mainly found in the two larger size classes (86%). The project intends to capture pieces before they disintegrate too far.
- The 5 Gyres Institute claimed that reducing plastic influx would keep the debris out of the ocean, and likely cost less than the Array. Slat agreed that stopping the influx is necessary, but argued that it is complementary to clean-up, because of the large volume of plastic that is already present.
- Mark Noak claimed that discouraging plastics consumption would be more effective, and that the project would enable harmful consumption patterns. Slat countered that a cleanup project has the potential to increase public awareness. It might also lead to spin-off technologies.
- Devices closer to shore are easier to maintain, and would likely recover more plastic per dollar spent overall.
- The device may not be robust enough to survive in the open sea.
- The device could imperil sea life.
The project and its founder have been recognized in many fora.
- 2014 Champion of the Earth - The United Nations Environment Programme.
- One of the 20 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs Worldwide - Intel EYE50.
- 2015 Maritime Young Entrepreneur Award.
- In 2015 the Array was named as a London Design Museum Design of the Year.
- 2015 INDEX: Award.
- 2015 Fast Company Innovation By Design Award in the category Social Good.
- 2015 100 Global Thinkers 0 Foreign Policy.
- 2016 Katerva award.
- 2017 Norwegian Shipowners’ Association's Thor Heyerdahl award.
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- Kooi, Merel; Reisser, Julia; Slat, Boyan; Ferrari, Francesco F.; Schmid, Moritz S.; Cunsolo, Serena; Brambini, Roberto; Noble, Kimberly; Sirks, Lys-Anne (2016-10-10). "The effect of particle properties on the depth profile of buoyant plastics in the ocean". Scientific Reports. 6 (1). doi:10.1038/srep33882. ISSN 2045-2322.
- Lebreton, Laurent C. M.; van der Zwet, Joost; Damsteeg, Jan-Willem; Slat, Boyan; Andrady, Anthony; Reisser, Julia (2017-06-07). "River plastic emissions to the world's oceans". Nature Communications. 8: 15611. doi:10.1038/ncomms15611. ISSN 2041-1723. PMC 5467230. PMID 28589961.
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