Halfway between New Zealand and Chile is an uninhabited Pacific island named Henderson. The island sits at the edge of the South Pacific gyre—a vortex of ocean currents. Acting like a conveyor belt, the gyre propels trash toward Henderson, where it accumulates on and under the beaches for miles on end. Research released this May estimates 38 million pieces of trash line the island’s seashore, with 3,500 more pieces washing up every day. Nearly all of it is plastic.
In terms of density, the Henderson garbage patch is the world’s largest so far. Most of the debris consists of everyday household items primarily from China, Japan, and Chile. And all of it poses a threat to marine wildlife. On Henderson, the rubbish has created a barrier for sea turtles trying to enter the beach to lay eggs. Two native seabird species have also been affected.
We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic. It’s something that’s designed to last forever, but is often only used for a few fleeting moments and tossed away.
The five major gyres cover 25% of the earth’s surface. A plastic bottle thrown into the ocean may travel around the world and return to where it started in 25 years. Meanwhile, the plastic disintegrates into toxic crumbs, oozing poisonous chemicals as it does. That poison seeps not only into sea creatures but also into the humans who eat them.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, nearly 700 species of marine wildlife have been affected by debris worldwide. “An estimated eight million metric tons of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans every year,” says Conservancy Director Nick Mallos. And by 2025, the oceans “could contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish.”
Dr. Jennifer Lavers, who led the Henderson research, equates the severity of the garbage problem to that of climate change. “We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic,” she says. “It’s something that’s designed to last forever, but is often only used for a few fleeting moments and tossed away.”
Lavers suggests the solution is a sweeping education campaign and societal change. But while those tactics are definitely going to be necessary, the best they can do is stop people from adding to the pollution. What’s really needed is a way to clean up the world’s garbage patches…and soon.
Just days before Lavers’ research was released, a young Dutch entrepreneur, Boyan Slat, 22, announced a design breakthrough in a barrier system he’s created. Called The Ocean Cleanup Array, the system can collect and remove ocean trash without harming wildlife. What’s more, Slat predicts it can clean up half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years.
The main idea behind The Ocean Cleanup Array is to let the ocean currents do the work. An installation of U-shaped screens directs floating plastic to a central point. The concentrated plastic can then be extracted and shipped to shore for recycling into durable products. The improvements involve the introduction of a mobile, or drifting system. Rather than fixing the floating screens to the seabed at great depths, The Ocean Cleanup Array will apply sea anchors to ensure the floating screens move slower than the plastic. Rather than one massive barrier, the improved, modular cleanup system consists of a fleet of screens.
Slat has been working on the Cleanup Array since 2011, when he was 16 years old. But his youth proved to be a bit much for scientists at the time. Early critics implied Slat was being naïve. He was underestimating both the ocean’s power and his project’s potential to harm the environment. As noted in The Washington Post, “One activist called it a ‘fool’s errand.’ Oceanographer Kim Martini described it as the ‘Wet Dream.'”
CEO Boyan Slat started The Ocean Cleanup with just 300 euros of capital. In October 2012, he presented his idea in a TEDx video, which soon went viral. A subsequent crowdfunding campaign yielded $90,000 in capital. Then, in 2014, the foundation raised $2.2 million with the support of 38,000 people from 160 countries—the most successful nonprofit crowdfunding campaign to date. By 2015, Time Magazine had named Slat’s system “One of the world’s best inventions.”
Criticism aside, Slat has doggedly pursued his vision through successes and failures. Last year, he announced the system would be capable of cleaning 42% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years. But that still wasn’t good enough. So, Slat continued to refine the system until he reached the design breakthrough announced in May—a 50% cleanup in five years.
Originally scheduled for deployment in 2020, the first barriers are being built right now in California. But since the oceans can’t wait, Slat has managed to speed up the barriers’ production. They will now be deployed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within 12 months.
All that remains now is to keep hope alive.
In his May TED talk, “How we will rid the oceans of plastic,” Slat introduces the design breakthrough that will enable The Ocean Cleanup Array to clean 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years.