The Ocean Cleanup: Laying Waste to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Over 5 TRILLION pieces of plastic currenlty litter the ocean.

That said, the largest accumulation zone of plastic waste in our world’s oceans is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Ocean Cleanup is a project launched in 2013 by Boyan Slat, with the mission of eradicating this plastic pollution quickly and in the most environmentally safe way possible. 

Located in the Pacific ocean, about halfway between California and Hawaii, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is roughly 1.6 million square kilometers in size. That is about twice the size of Texas! Talk about a whole lot of garbage. Scientists estimate that approximately 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic waste are entering the ocean each year from rivers, and with more than half of that plastic being less dense than water, it just floats around getting caught up in currents and wreaking havoc as it goes. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, alone, has been estimated to weigh somewhere around 80,000 – 100,000 tonnes, which is the equivalent of about 500 Jumbo Jets. 

Now that we have your attention on just how massive this Garbage Patch is, what do we do about cleaning it up?

In 2016, 16-year-old Boyan Slat went scuba diving in Greece and was dismayed that he found more plastic than fish during his dive. More surprising still, was in discovering that no one was doing anything about the problem. He then posed the question, “Why don’t we just clean it up?” and began working on a high school science project aimed at doing just that. In his research, Slat found that a cleanup effort using standard nets and vessels would involve tens of billions of dollars, and would take about 1000 years to accomplish, all the while causing harm to sea life and pumping out an insane amount of carbon emissions in the process. There had to be another way. 

Over the next year, Slat experimented with different methods to address the Garbage Patch issue that has become an increasing problem with each passing year as more and more plastic waste makes its way into our oceans and ecosystems. According to The Ocean Cleanup, there are 5 major plastic accumulation zones in the world where our oceans converge. These zones, called “garbage patches”, act as collection areas for the plastic waste that is not heavy enough to sink to the ocean floors. These plastics will not simply disappear on their own either, but will break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, over time. These microplastics are harmful to our environment in many ways, including posing a danger most people have likely never considered: consumption by humans through the food chain. Microplastics are being eaten by marine life, leading to starvation of ocean animals since plastics have no nutritional value. Further, when consumed by the fish that make their way onto our dinner plates, the ingredients of these plastics, as well as the toxic chemicals they absorb, are then passed onto humans. Who knows the health effects that are manifesting as a direct result of such a cycle.   

Through his experimentation, Slat developed an idea involving a passive concentration system that would use ocean currents to his advantage, letting them bring the garbage to the trap instead of chasing the garbage in boats – essentially eliminating the carbon emissions factor that is so counterproductive to efforts aimed at pollution eradication. After graduating high school, Slat continued developing his cleanup theory and eventually founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2013. 

Fast forward to October 2019, and The Ocean Cleanup’s System 001/B is “successfully capturing and collecting plastic debris,” using a self-contained system capable of cleaning up visible refuse, as well as microplastics as small as 1mm. The implications of this successful system launch is astounding for the health of our oceans, their marine life, and the many ecosystems on the planet. 

Plastic retention in front of the extended cork line, from System 001/B.
Photo credit: The Ocean Cleanup

“After beginning this journey seven years ago, this first year of testing in the unforgivable environment of the high seas strongly indicates that our vision is attainable and that the beginning of our mission to rid the ocean of plastic garbage, which has accumulated for decades, is within our sights,” said Slat. “Our team has remained steadfast in its determination to solve immense technical challenges to arrive at this point. Though we still have much more work to do, I am eternally grateful for the team’s commitment and dedication to the mission and look forward to continuing to the next phase of development.”

The Ocean Cleanup now has System 002 in the works, which will be a full-scale cleanup system capable of retaining its collected debris for much longer periods of time, and will be notably more durable than its predecessor. Once operational, The Ocean Cleanup will be able to start transporting the collected plastics and other debris back to dry land for recycling.