Dutch engineering student Boyan Slat announced in a 2012 TEDx talk that he had invented a way for the oceans to rid themselves of plastic with minimal human intervention. About 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year. Part of this accumulates in 5 areas where currents converge: the gyres. At least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are currently in the oceans, a third of which is concentrated in the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Slat’s idea is to building a stationary array with floating barriers that would filter and collect floating plastic using the ocean’s natural currents.
The theory: Use currents to have pollution come to you, rather than chase the garbage around the ocean—a costly and resource-intensive endeavor. But the research wasn’t thorough enough to convince the scientists the ocean array would succeed. They worried that inserting such an intrusive structure would have too many potential unintended consequences, including interfering with wildlife, to undertake the project. Good thought, they said, but try again.
So he did. Fast-forward three years, and Slat, 20, now has a 530-page feasibility study and $2.1 million in crowdsourced funding backing his Ocean Cleanup pilot project. The plan is to deploy a 6,561-foot prototype array designed to collect plastic off the coast of Japan in 2016. If all goes as planned, he’ll send off a production vessel measuring 62 miles long in 2020 that he says could remove 42 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within ten years.
Here’s how the tech works: The V-shaped ocean array will be made of 62 miles of floating barriers that drop, skirt-like, almost ten feet below the surface. (The Ocean Cleanup’s measurements have shown that the concentration of garbage decreases deeper than that.)
The array won’t move. Instead, it’ll be anchored to the seabed (12,795 feet below the surface) between Hawaii and California in the North Pacific Gyre—one of five major oceanic areas where currents converge—collecting plastic and trapping the pollution at the surface while allowing marine life and plankton to continue flowing with the current under the barrier.