Machine to clean up ocean plastic, which is sixteen times larger than previously thought

  • The North Sea prototype assembled, ready for installation, August 2017. Credit: The Ocean Cleanup Foundation
  • The Ocean Cleanup Credit: Erwin Zwart
  • Mega Expedition mothership R/V Ocean Starr crew pulling a ghost net from the Pacific Ocean, 2015.
  • Mega Expedition mothership R/V Ocean Starr fully deployed above the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 2015
  • Plastic samples collected during The Ocean Cleanup’s Mega Expedition, 2015
Date:23 March 2018 Tags:, , , ,

There are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 80,000 metric tons currently afloat in an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – and it is rapidly getting worse.

These are the main conclusions of a three year mapping effort conducted by an international team of scientists affiliated with The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company. Their findings were published on 22 March, World Water Day, in the journal Scientific Reports.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located halfway between Hawaii and California, is not (as widely believed) a solid mass of floating plastic, but is the largest accumulation zone for ocean plastics on Earth. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as The Ocean Cleanup Foundation is launching a massive cleanup operation later this year that is expected to collect 50% of total trash in just five years. Previously The Ocean Cleanup Foundation estimated that it would take 10 years to remove 42% of the debris.

A machine to cleanup plastic from the ocean
CEO of The Ocean Cleanup Foundation Boyan Slat first shared his vision for cleaning up the ocean with his Ocean Cleanup machine in a TED Talk when he was seventeen years old. Subsequently, Slat launched a crowdfunding initiative that has raised millions of dollars to fund the project.

His design involves giant booms that collect rubbish by using the Pacific’s own currents. The booms act as “artificial coastlines” and passively catch and concentrating the debris in the centre. A boat with then sweep by periodically (around once a month) and removes the debris.

In February 2018 The Ocean Cleanup and the City of Alameda (an island in close proximity to Oakland and San Francisco) signed a lease agreement for a peninsula now known as Alameda Point, which formed part of the former Alameda Naval Air Station. The first cleanup system, known as Cleanup System #1, will be launched here in the San Francisco Bay Area during March. The 600m-long system will be assembled at the point and then gradually be lowered into the adjacent Seaplane Lagoon, where it will float before being towed out to the Pacific Ocean.

According to The Ocean Cleanup’s website, “The assembly phase will be followed by a set of final tests before we attempt to launch this first cleanup system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, currently scheduled for mid-2018.”


Boyan Slat commented, “Next to Alameda’s major historical military significance, it was here that the famous car chase scene in The Matrix Reloaded was filmed, and it was home to some of the best experiments of my favorite childhood TV show, MythBusters. We’re honoured to be allowed to use this site as the assembly yard for the world’s first ocean cleanup system. Hopefully, we will make some history here as well.”

More about the The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), located halfway between Hawaii and California, is the largest accumulation zone for ocean plastics on Earth. Conventionally, researchers have used single, fine-meshed nets, typically less than a meter in size, in an attempt to quantify the problem. However, this method yields high uncertainty because of the small surface area that is covered. Additionally, these methods could not measure the magnitude of the problem to its fullest extent, because all sampling nets – small and large – were unable to capture objects greater than the size of the net.

In order to analyze the full extent of the GPGP, the team conducted the most comprehensive sampling effort of the GPGP to date by crossing the debris field with 30 vessels simultaneously, supplemented by two aircraft surveys. Although most vessels were equipped with standard surface sampling nets, the fleet’s mothership RV Ocean Starr also trawled two six-meter-wide devices, which allowed the team to sample medium to large-sized objects.

The fleet collected a total of 1.2 million plastic samples, while the aerial sensors scanned more than 300 km2 of ocean surface.

The results, published today in Scientific Reports, reveal that the GPGP, defined as the area with more than 10 kg of plastic per km2, measures 1.6 million square kilometers, three times the size of continental France. Accumulated in this area are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 80,000 metric tons, the equivalent of 500 Jumbo Jets. These figures are four to sixteen times higher than previous estimates. 92% of the mass is represented by larger objects; while only 8% of the mass is contained in microplastics, defined as pieces smaller than 5 mm in size.

“We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered,” said Dr. Julia Reisser, Chief Scientist of the expeditions. “We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris.”

Boyan Slat, Founder of The Ocean Cleanup and co-author of the study, elaborated on the relevance of the findings for his organisation’s cleanup plans: “To be able to solve a problem, we believe it is essential to first understand it. These results provide us with key data to develop and test our cleanup technology, but it also underlines the urgency of dealing with the plastic pollution problem. Since the results indicate that the amount of hazardous microplastics is set to increase more than tenfold if left to fragment, the time to start is now.”

Source: The Ocean Cleanup Foundation

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