The Ocean Cleanup
|Formation||2013 Delft, Netherlands|
|Purpose||Cleaning the oceans|
The Ocean Cleanup is a foundation that develops technologies to extract plastic pollution from the oceans and prevent more plastic debris from entering ocean waters. The organization was founded in 2013 by Boyan Slat, a Dutch born inventor-entrepreneur of Croatian origin who serves as its CEO, and has 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 also raised over 2 million USD with the help of a crowdfunding campaign in 2014. The foundation’s headquarters are in Delft, the Netherlands.
The removal of plastic debris on the open seas is still in its infancy. Some initiatives, such as Project Kaisei, have used ships with nets to catch plastics, primarily for research purposes. The Ocean Cleanup proposes a larger-scale, passive method of removing marine debris in or near the ocean gyres by means of 1–2-kilometre (0.62–1.24 mi) drifting floating systems, slowed down by a sea anchor at an approximate depth of 600 metres (0.37 mi). A solid screen underneath the floating pipe will catch and concentrate the debris not directly on the surface. These U-shaped systems will drift freely in the North Pacific gyre and concentrate plastic towards a central point where it can be extracted by support vessels for transportation back to shore. The first system is set to be deployed by mid-2018 and The Ocean Cleanup estimates to be able to clean up 50% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years’ time as of full-scale deployment in 2020.
Through a series of oceanic expeditions, The Ocean Cleanup is researching the total mass and the distribution of plastic debris in the oceans, as well as technically and economically feasible ocean plastic recycling methods, technologies and equipment. In August 2015, it conducted its so-called Mega Expedition, in which a fleet of approximately 30 vessels crossed the Great Pacific garbage patch using manta trawls to measure the concentration, spatial and size distribution of plastic there. Researchers aboard mothership R/V Ocean Starr reported sighting of much more large-sized plastic debris in the Great Pacific Ocean gyre than expected. According to The Ocean Cleanup website, this expedition was conducted in preparation for a large-scale cleanup of the Great Pacific garbage patch, which it intends to start in 2020.
In the fall of 2016, The Ocean Cleanup conducted a series of reconnaissance flights across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This expedition was called the Aerial Expedition and was the first aerial survey of an ocean garbage patch. The objective of the expedition was to quantify the ocean’s biggest debris, i.e. discarded fishing gear called ghost nets. The data collected combined with the data from their previous Mega Expedition, helped map the plastic pollution in Great Pacific Garbage Patch and results are expected to be published in 2017.
To quantify the debris, The Ocean Cleanup used a combination of human observers and sensors. They used a C-130 Hercules aircraft which flew at a low speed and low altitude for human researchers their CZMIL system (which uses LiDAR to create a 3D-image of the ghost nets) and the SASI hyperspectral SWIR imaging system (which uses an infrared camera to detect ocean plastic) to document ocean plastic pollution. Boyan Slat said that the crew saw a lot more debris than expected.
In a series of tests, successive scale model deployments of increasing sizes will be installed in increasingly challenging oceanic locations. According to Slat, The Ocean Cleanup performed controlled environment tests in 2015. A 100-metre segment went through a test in the North Sea, just off the coast of the Netherlands in the summer of 2016. After two months, the test was stopped, due to the failure of shackles connecting the boom to the mooring system.
On May 11, The Ocean Cleanup announced the next step is to test their new drifting system in the North Pacific in 2017. After iteratively improving this design, The Ocean Cleanup expects to launch the first cleanup system mid-2018. By gradually adding more systems they expect to reach full-scale deployment in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 2020.
Survey mobile application
In the later half of 2015, The Ocean Cleanup launched an iOS and Android application, the Visual Survey, which enables anyone on a boat on the ocean to contribute data. The purpose of this app is to provide scientists with the amount, kind and whereabouts of plastic pollution. The app times a 30-minute observation session and during which observers log the debris they see. This replaces paper surveys and the data will be shared with other scientists in addition to assisting The Ocean Cleanup in making decisions.
Several criticisms and doubts about method, feasibility, efficiency and return on investment have been raised in the scientific community about The Ocean Cleanup Array.
- The 5 Gyres Institute claim The Ocean Cleanup did not produce a thorough Environmental Impact Report and did not examine alternatives, for example having fishermen recover plastic pollution. Boyan Slat states using conventional methods like vessels and nets would be inefficient in terms of time and costs. The Ocean Cleanup is working on environmental impact studies with external expert to assess and minimize any environmental impact their technology may have.
- Marcus Eriksen et al. (2014) have found 92% of plastic pieces in the ocean is smaller than microplastic and cannot be caught by The Ocean Cleanup's system. However, in the same study it shows the plastic mass is mainly found in the two larger size classes (86%). Catching the larger debris before they break down into microplastics is The Ocean Cleanup's goal.
- Researchers have now found microplastic and synthetic fibers 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 5 Gyres Institute argue taking the system upstream would capture more plastic before it degrades and impacts marine life, and more than likely at less cost than the Array. Boyan Slat mentions that cleaning up the gyres is not the solution for plastic pollutions as a whole, and stopping the influx is definitely necessary. However, Boyan Slat states that one does not exclude the other. By cleaning up what is left to circulate in the gyres, The Ocean Cleanup can prevent larger pieces from breaking down into the more harmful microplastics.
- Mark Noak claims discouraging plastics consumption would be more effective long-term, and The Ocean Cleanup's strategy will instead enable environmentally harmful consumption patterns. Boyan Slat argues a cleanup project has the potential to make the problem visible, and helps people become aware of the problem in general. It might also lead to spin-off technologies.
Awards and recognition
The Ocean Cleanup and its CEO/founder Boyan Slat have won numerous distinctions. The United Nations Environment Programme awarded Slat with the Champion of the Earth in 2014, and he was previously recognized as one of the 20 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs Worldwide by Intel EYE50. In 2015, Harald V of Norway awarded Slat the maritime industry's Young Entrepreneur Award and The Ocean Cleanup Array was named as a London Design Museum Design of the Year. Also in 2015, the Ocean Cleanup Array won the INDEX: Award in 2015 and the 2015 Fast Company Innovation By Design Award in the category Social Good. Foreign Policy recognized Slat as one of the 100 Global Thinkers of 2015. In 2016, The Ocean Cleanup won the Katerva award also known as the ”Nobel Prize for Sustainability.”  The Ocean Cleanup was awarded the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association's Thor Heyerdahl award in May 2017.
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