Boyan Slat, Dutch inventor & wunderkin, gave a TEDx talk back in 2012 that took environmentalists and engineers the world over for a whirl. His talk concerned the rapidly increasing volume of plastic in the world’s oceans, especially the Pacific, and his idea for, not just removing it, but recycling it too. He proposed building a large array of booms that would ride the waves, sort of speak, allowing marine life to flow through, while trapping plastic debris and garbage at the surface. Natural wave action would slowly drive the debris towards the center of each boom section where a solar-powered filter would scoop it up and store it for collection.

Boyan Slat’s original Tedx talk in Delft, Netherlands.

Slat’s plan was not without its critics, many of whom were concerned that such a large structure could potentially harm marine life, especially plankton, the little micro-organisms that form the very base of the marine food chain. Others, engineers in particular, were skeptical that the miles-long array of booms proposed by Slat could withstand the extreme weather conditions of the Pacific. Slat was undeterred. After successfully raising $2 million in crowd-funding, and recruiting engineers, oceanographers, and researchers from around the world, Slat founded his own organization called The Ocean Cleanup to see if his bold vision for a plastic-free ocean could become reality.

A Moon Shot for the Sea

Three years on from TEDx, The Ocean Cleanup has achieved a number of milestones, all of which have affirmed both the science and the economics underpinning Slat’s idea. Last Summer, the organization completed a feasibility study that showed that a sufficiently large array, a mere 67 miles long, could remove half of the plastic trapped in the Pacific within 10 years. They estimated that the overall cost of the operation would be about 4.53 euros ($5.10) per kilogram of plastic recovered, just 3% of the cost of recovering the same volume of material using conventional nets and trawlers. A significant portion of those costs could be further offset by reselling the plastic collected by the array.

With a number of experiments and studies under their belt, The Ocean Cleanup has announced their intention to build a pilot array in the Tsushima Strait, between South Korea and the western coast of Japan. The coastal pilot will cover a span of 2000 meters (1.24 miles) across the strait, becoming the longest marine structure ever built. It will allow Slat and his intrepid team of engineers and marine researchers to study the durability of their designs, as well as practice the routines of maintenance and collection that will be of vital importance once the full-scale Ocean Cleanup Array is ready for its mainstream debut.

The Mega Expedition

Within five years, Ocean Cleanup plans to begin construction of the massive 67 mile long array that will help put a dent in the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating through the oceans. But before that happens, The Ocean Cleanup needs an accurate map of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Starting in August, up to 50 vessels will sail in parallel from Hawaii to Los Angeles, measuring plastic levels along the way. The resulting data will allow researchers to create a 3,500,000 km2 map of the garbage patch showing where plastic concentrations are highest and identifying any other debris that might be lying just above the surface.

If you have an ocean-worthy vessel at your disposal you can take part in The Ocean Cleanup’s Mega Expedition this summer. The organization is offering to cover a significant portion of participants’ expenses. So if you have a schooner in drydock, its time to raise anchor and set sail for the garbage patch!


Image Credits: The Ocean Cleanup