The Ocean Cleanup

  • An estimated at least 8 million tons of plastic pours into the sea every year. 
  • The Ocean Cleanup organisation has been trying to create a system that can clean plastic out of the world's oceans.
  • However, the device has received significant criticism from members of the scientific community. 


It's finally in the water.

For five years now, The Ocean Cleanup, an organisation founded by 24-year-old Dutch innovator Boyan Slat, has been trying to create a system that can clean plastic out of the world's oceans.

There's a mind-boggling amount of plastic in the oceans, and that amount grows every day. At least 8 million metric tons of plastic pours into the sea every year — a number that's considered a low estimate, since it doesn't include commonly found debris like fishing nets.  As this trash breaks down into tinier and tinier bits, much of it is eventually carried into one of five massive ocean regions, where plastic can be so concentrated that areas have garnered names like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

On Saturday, Slat's organisation began the journey out to sea with their first official 2,000-foot-long (600-metres-long) plastic cleaning array, System 001. The ship the Maersk Launcher towed the device through the San Francisco Bay out under the Golden Gate Bridge, en route to a final testing site and then — if everything goes well — they'll head to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where the cleanup crew hopes that first system will be able to collect 50 tons of plastic in its first year.

Slat and colleagues hope The Ocean Cleanup's plastic-collecting arrays can help at least remove large debris from these swirling vortexes. They say their models show that with a full deployment of 60 arrays, they could be able to remove 50% of the garbage patch region's plastic within five years.

But so far, their technology is still unproven, and no one knows for sure whether it'll work as planned.

The Ocean Cleanup's plan is an inspiration for many, as an effort to try to confront what seems like an impossibly large and ugly problem.

But it's also received significant criticism from members of the scientific community who study plastics. Those researchers say the system may not be effective since it can't reach most ocean plastic that has started to break into tiny pieces and sink into the waters. They fear that it could have negative impacts on marine wildlife or could be broken up by harsh ocean conditions, or that it could be a distraction from stopping the overall use of plastics and the management that prevents them from getting into the ocean in the first place. 

Slat says stopping plastic pollution in the first place needs to be a global priority, but that they believe cleaning up what's out there already has to be done as well. Yet he knows the world and the scientific community are watching as the system begins its first real test. 

"It's still not proven technology and in the next months, it has to do what it has to do," he told Business Insider. The group has run models and simulations and they've tested systems in the water, but this is the first time a full size array will be assembled and hopefully functioning in the Pacific.

As he said on Saturday, "models are models" — helpful, but still not perfect demonstrations of reality. 

"It'll be an exciting six months," said Slat.

Here's what the initial deployment looked like.

The system was assembled in Alameda, California, in a shipyard in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Ocean Cleanup


Hard-walled pipe makes up the floating component of the cleanup array.

The Ocean Cleanup


The Ocean Cleanup says the floating array is equipped with lanterns, radar reflectors, navigational signals, GPS, and anti-collision beacons.

The Ocean Cleanup


Solar panels help provide power to these systems.

The Ocean Cleanup


Below the floating part of the array, an impenetrable 3 metres skirt is supposed to help gather floating debris.

The Ocean Cleanup


Earlier this year, the Ocean Cleanup built a 400-foot (121 metres) test array to see how it held up while being towed out into the water.

The Ocean Cleanup


That trial unit was towed out to sea on May 18.

The Ocean Cleanup


It survived the two-week long tow test.

The Ocean Cleanup


The full array is 2,000 feet (600 metres) long.

The Ocean Cleanup


Designing the first full-size array cost around $23 million (or about R350 million), though the team estimates that future arrays will cost under $6 million (just over R90 million) to make.

The Ocean Cleanup


The first array will be towed 240-300 miles (386-480 kilometres) offshore, which will take about three days.

Kevin Loria/Business Insider


The device right now is long and straight, so there's not too much drag on it in the water.

Kevin Loria/Business Insider


But once they reach the test site, it'll first be assembled into its U-shape for approximately a two-week testing period.

Kevin Loria/Business Insider


Slat says that there, they want to see if the system keeps its shape and structural integrity once it's fully assembled — and they also want to see how it moves in the water.

Kevin Loria/Business Insider


If all goes well, it'll be pulled another 1,000 nautical miles out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Ocean Cleanup


Once the array is out there, the team plans to have a ship scoop up collected plastic approximately every six weeks.

The Ocean Cleanup


But since this is a first array, the Ocean Cleanup expects they'll have to tweak and potentially redesign aspects of the cleanup arrays and the plastic collection process.

The Ocean Cleanup


Once it reaches the garbage patch region, the team wants to see how efficient it as at capturing plastic.

Kevin Loria/Business Insider


Once winter arrives, they'll be able to see if it can stand up to massive waves and storms.

Kevin Loria/Business Insider


The first array might be complete, but its test is just beginning.

Kevin Loria/Business Insider

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