Ocean Cleanup pilots ‘the first scalable technology’ to remove plastic waste from Earth's waters

Each year, 8 million tons of plastic — the equivalent of a garbage truck load every minute — is dumped into the ocean, according to the World Economic Forum.

The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit engineering environmental organization based in the Netherlands, is attempting to remove as much of that plastic as is feasible.

“Our strategy is really twofold,” The Ocean Cleanup CEO and Founder Boyan Slat said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “On one hand, stop the source, preventing more plastic from going into the oceans and rivers. But at the same time, there's already a lot of legacy plastic in the ocean, especially this Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California. It's massive and it doesn't go away by itself. So we have to clean that up.”

The Ocean Cleanup has deployed three interceptors in rivers in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Dominican Republic to keep plastic from entering oceans. The solar-powered barrier and conveyor system uses river currents to funnel plastic into containers that can be brought back to land and sorted through.

The ultimate aim is to develop “the first scalable technology” to remove plastic from Earth's waters, Slat said.

BALI, INDONESIA - JANUARY 30 : Saarinah (45) carries recyclable plastic trash on January 30, 2021 in Kedonganan, Bali, Indonesia. During the northwest monsoon season, she works to collect the recyclable plastic trash which brought in by the strong waves. She can collect 8kg per day and earns Rp.4000 per kg. In Bali, famed among tourists for its beaches and sunsets, the northwest monsoon brings a different kind of arrival - vast amounts of plastic waste. From December to March, so much trash washes up on the beaches that the local government struggles to keep up and clean up. Locals and workers have together been collecting 80 tonnes of waste a day as it washes ashore at world-famous beaches from Seminyak to Kuta, the local government said. Almost 75 percent of it is plastic, according to a study by the Center of Remote Sensing and Ocean Sciences at Bali's Udayana University. In the absence of tourism due to Covid-19, the trash problem has become obvious on beaches almost entirely devoid of visitors. Indonesia is part of the U.N.'s Clean Seas campaign, which aims to halt the tide of plastic trash polluting the oceans. As part of its commitment, the government has vowed to reduce marine plastic waste by 70 percent by 2025. (Photo by Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)
Saarinah (45) carries recyclable plastic trash on January 30, 2021 in Kedonganan, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo by Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)

'If everything goes well... we can with confidence say that the technology works'

Ocean Cleanup is targeting garbage patches, which are areas where circulating ocean currents amass plastic in large concentrations.

Because most plastics don't break down for hundreds of years, the debris accumulates over time.

The most prominent garbage patch, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is estimated to contain 79,000 tons of plastic across an area of over half a million square miles. The detritus is primarily made up of microplastics, which the National Ocean Service defines as "small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life."

Ocean Cleanup's approach draws inspiration from the natural world — and coastlines, in particular.

“If you look at coastlines, coastlines are actually very effective ways of catching plastic,” Slat said. “If you see it on the beach, it's out of the ocean, stays out of the ocean."

That gave Slat and his team members the idea of building coastlines in the middle of the ocean.

"Basically, we've developed very long, floating barriers that we drag through the patch," he said. "And it catches and then concentrates the plastic before we can take it out."

System 002 during a test run in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Photo: The Ocean Clean Up)
System 002 during a test run in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Photo: The Ocean Clean Up)

In 2019, Ocean Cleanup recalled its first system, nicknamed 'Wilson', to repair and iterate on its design. Since then, the nonprofit has continued to make adjustments and even launched its latest prototype, System 002 or 'Jenny', in July 2021.

“If everything goes well, in a few weeks from now we hope to see a system completely filled with plastic,” Slat said. “And if that works, then we can with confidence say that the technology works and we can scale this up.”

The nonprofit is also looking for ways to automate and clean up how its ocean vessels are powered. Slat noted the difficulty of cleaning up plastic in the oceans without using fossil fuels.

“Batteries are just not good enough for that yet,” he said. “We do use fuels, but at the same time, we're experimenting with low carbon biofuels. And all the rest of the emissions will be offset, so the cleanup will be carbon neutral.”

Plastic catch onboard a System 002 vessel. (Photo: The Ocean Clean Up)
Plastic catch onboard a System 002 vessel. (Photo: The Ocean Clean Up)

Since it was founded in 2013, Ocean Cleanup boasts a number of notable backers, including Maersk (MAERSK) and a recent partnership with Coca-Cola (KO).

Regarding the partnership with Coca-Cola, which was rated the world's top plastic polluter in 2020, Slat said “there's two ways to look at it.”

One way, he said, is to look at it from a greenwashing lens, in which Coca-Cola appears to virtuously help with the plastic problem while continuing to pollute waters with plastic bottles and other packaging.

“But the way I look at it is that it's a pragmatic way to scale this up,” Slat continued. “Companies like Coca-Cola, they don't want the ocean to be polluted with plastic. So by allowing them to solve this problem by cleaning out their own waste — I think if anyone should be paying for this clean up, it's companies like Coca-Cola.”

Grace is an assistant editor for Yahoo Finance and a UX writer for Yahoo products.

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