Boyan Slat has been dreaming of cleaning up the world's oceans ever since he was a teenager. On October 2, 2019, the now 25-year-old announced that System 001/B, an autonomous retrieval system developed by his non-profit Ocean Cleanup, had successfully trapped plastic debris floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between Hawaii and California, the approximately 617,763 square-mile mass of waste is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world.
"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.
Slat first became aware of ocean pollution during a diving vacation in Greece in 2010, when he observed more plastic on the beaches than fish in the sea. In 2013, the Dutch teenager, who had always dreamed of becoming an aerospace engineer, decided to forgo higher education and instead establish The Ocean Cleanup. The foundation's mission was to create an environmentally-friendly, large-scale solution to remove the ever-increasing plastic debris from aquatic ecosystems.
Though the idea sounded feasible, creating an autonomous, scalable device, which did not harm marine creatures, was no easy task. It took five years, 273 models, and six prototypes before Slat's team of 70 scientists and engineers launched the U-shaped, solar-powered System 001, or "Wilson," off the coast of San Francisco in October 2018.
System 001 comprised a long floater that sat on the surface of the water and a skirt that hung beneath it. The floater provided buoyancy, while the skirt prevented debris from escaping underneath and channeled it into the retention system. A cork line above the skirt stopped overtopping and kept the skirt afloat. However, though the solar-powered "Wilson" easily scooped up the garbage, it was unable to retain it, primarily due to the difference between the speed of the system and and the plastic debris.
Undeterred by the minor setback, Slat's team spent the next year testing a new prototype with a parachute sea anchor that allowed for faster-moving plastic debris to float into the system. Though this solved the issue of the speed differential between the water and debris, it caused a large amount of the plastic to rise above the barrier and escape. This was fixed by increasing the size of the cork line. System 001/B, launched off the coast of Vancouver, Canada, in June 2019, successfully completed its inaugural mission collecting a vast amount of ocean garbage that ranged from large fishing nets to barely discernible micro-plastics.
“We now have a self-contained system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is using the natural forces of the ocean to passively catch and concentrate plastics … This now gives us sufficient confidence in the general concept to keep going on this project,” Slat said.
The social entrepreneur and his team plan to continue improving the device and building additional units so they can be deployed to oceans worldwide. They hope to make it more durable, so it can retain plastic for up to a year or even longer before collection is necessary. Slat's dream is to remove 50 percent of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within the next five years, and 90 percent of all ocean plastic by 2040! The reclaimed polymer will be brought back to shore and transformed into premium products.
“I think in a few years’ time when we have the full-scale fleet out there, I think it should be possible to cover the operational cost of the cleanup operation using the plastic harvested,” Slat said.
Resources: theoceancleanup.com. Newatlas.com, theguardian.com