There are trillions of plastic particles floating amongst marine life right now, and a disturbing amount of that trash can be found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of the North Pacific gyre. This massive, plastic dense area forms from four clashing ocean currents creating a vortex spanning from Japan to California. Estimates suggest over one trillion particles, nearly 80,000 metric tons, are floating in this region alone. This is the most populated area for ocean plastic and debris anywhere on earth.

Can we clean the oceans?

A 24 year old Dutch entrepreneur says 50% of these plastic particles could be removed in 5 years. By 2040, 90% of floating ocean plastic could be removed and the earth would once again have clean oceans.

The solution

The team at the Ocean Cleanup created a 600m long floating horseshoe that uses natural forces from wind, waves and the ocean currents to patrol the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The current technology, named System 001, has a skirt 3 meters below the surface to help guide the plastic, gradually funneling it to the centre of the ‘U’ shaped system.

open ocean cleanup system to capture trillions of plastic particles from the ocean
System 001 setup : theOceanCleanup

Designed to withstand extreme weather and brutal storms at sea, System 001 is equipped with cameras, lights, GPS, anti-collision beacons, radar reflectors and navigational signals.

The first mission was launched out of San Francisco Bay in September of 2018. By January of 2019 they reached Hilo Harbour in Hawaii for maintenance and upgrades after some troubles at sea.

An Environmental Impact Assessment was conducted through CSA Ocean Sciences that turned up no major environmental risks, and yielded a single medium risk out of the 29 analyzed factors. The risk was the potential attraction of sea turtles to the cleanup system. The feared result being the ingestion of floating plastics that the turtles mistaken for jellyfish, a favorite snack.

More than 60 mammals were encountered on the 116 day journey to Hawaii, including 52 whales and 3 California sea lions. One unidentified sea turtle was recorded as well.

image : theOceanCleanup
The design is such that it does not trap fish and other marine life, only plastics.

One of the main issues for System 001 was the inability to stay at a constant speed faster than the floating plastic. When the project slowed down, plastic was often re-released back into the ocean.

Open Ocean Robotics

There are emerging technologies happening simultaneously that could help propel the ocean cleanup, notably Open Ocean Robotics. This startup develops autonomous solar and wind powered boats used for research and data collection.

Open Ocean Robotics developed autonomous wind and solar powered boats

For starters, there is an opportunity to cut costs and increase the efficiency of the Ocean Cleanup garbage collection. Instead of bringing a large vessel in every few months to collect plastic, the unmanned vehicles could be sent in more often and with less hassle. These boats could drastically reduce the projects overall greenhouse gas emissions. Removing a large vessel from the ocean for just one week saves the equivalent of a years worth of emissions from 100 cars.

Another possible use is as an alternative method for transportation which could solve their troubles of falling to speeds slower than floating debris. Technology like that found on the Open Ocean Robotics boats could act like a generator providing that extra power when needed using 100% renewable energy.

The Ocean Cleanup system was demobilized in late March of 2019 with the intention of being relaunched from the Hawaiian mainland in the third week of June.

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