The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization that focuses on designing and implementing advanced technologies for cleaning up plastic pollution in the ocean. It is headquartered in Delft, the Netherlands. The organization was founded in 2013 by 18-year-old former engineering student Boyan Slat. Slat was so passionate about his pollution-fighting ideas that he withdrew from Delft University of Technology to pursue them.
Background, Founding, and Organization
Slat first described his ideas for cleaning up ocean plastic pollution in October 2012 at the TEDx Talks in Delft. In his presentation, titled "How the Oceans Can Clean Themselves," Slat explained how plastic debris and other pollutants become concentrated in five ocean gyres, which are like giant swirling whirlpools in the ocean. The largest of these, nicknamed the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," spans across the North Pacific Ocean. Within this region, there are two distinct areas of swirling floating debris, one near Japan and the other near California.
Some of the plastic items remain trapped in these gyres for decades, gradually breaking down and leaching toxic chemical compounds into the waters. The chemicals cause illness and death among fish and other ocean species. The chemicals are also linked to illnesses in people who consume the contaminated animals. These illnesses include immune system disorders, cancer, and birth defects.
In his TEDx speech, Slat proposed building long plastic-collecting devices along the sea surface at the gyre sites. The idea was to passively, automatically, and continually extract plastic waste from the swirling water by these devices. After an online video of this speech attracted widespread attention, Slat was encouraged in February 2013 to drop out of college and found The Ocean Cleanup. He raised millions of dollars for the new organization through an online crowdfunding campaign, which attracted thousands of donors from more than 150 countries.
The Ocean Cleanup's paid staff includes scientists, engineers, and computer modelers. Slat is chief executive officer. The young executive quickly surrounded himself with older, experienced individuals to help him realize his plans. Lonneke Holierhoek, with more than 20 years of experience in maritime and offshore construction, was made chief operating officer. Jos Huijbregts, with more than 25 years of experience in corporate management, was made chief financial officer. Slat also created a scientific advisory board consisting of several experts in oceanography, ecology, offshore structures, marine technology, and marine law.
Although the organization is headquartered in Delft, its facility for assembling the cleanup systems is located in Alameda, California. The Alameda construction yard is on the site of a former naval air station.
Project Deployment and Technology
The deployment of Slat's concept began in mid-2018. Plans called for a fleet of debris-collecting boom-like devices, each about 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) long, to be deployed at gyre locations selected on the basis of computer modeling. The first location was within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, about 1,380 miles offshore from California. The original device consisted of a 330-foot-long floating pipe that was designed to drift with the currents. Beneath the pipe hung a solid polyurethane screen that trapped plastic debris floating near the surface, where most of the waste is located. The screen could catch items ranging in size from 1 centimeter to several meters. The initial clean-up efforts ran into trouble, however, when the device failed to collect garbage, broke, or overflowed.
In 2021, a new version of the device was deployed, called System 002. The u-shaped device had an underwater net and was pulled along by two boats. Once the net filled up, the collected garbage would be dumped onto the boats, to be recycled later. One device held almost 20,000 pounds of garbage. At that rate of garbage collection, Slat estimated that with 10 of the devices, half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch could be cleaned up in five years.In 2022, the project was scaled up again to System 03, a solution three times the size of System 002. System 03 is able to capture larger quantities of plastic at a lower cost per kilogram. Like the first device, more recent versions only pick up plastic on the surface of the ocean.
Critics note that the boats that haul the device use fuel, which itself has an environmental cost. The Ocean Cleanup has addressed this concern by buying carbon credits to offset the boats' emissions. As of 2022, the project has removed more than 200,000 pounds of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Addressing Plastic in Rivers
Critics have argued that Slat's ocean clean-up device would ultimately have little impact due to the volume of plastic continuing to make its way into the ocean via rivers each year. The Ocean Cleanup acknowledged the issue and responded by developing the Interceptor, a solar-powered barge to collect plastic from rivers before it can reach the ocean. The Interceptor was unveiled in October 2019, and can remove 110,000 pounds of plastic from a river per day. In 2021, more Interceptor technologies were introduced, including the Interceptor Barrier, a floating barrier that catches plastic waste at the mouths of rivers. The Ocean Cleanup determined that 1,000 rivers are responsible for 80% of the trash flowing from rivers into the ocean; this means that by focusing on the most-polluted rivers, the Interceptor devices can have a substantial impact.
The Interceptor works by using the river's current to capture plastic in a barrier and funnel it into the barge. A conveyor belt then moves the waste into a shuttle that moves the waste into dumpsters to take to a recycling facility. The entire process is controlled by onboard computers using sensors to monitor the flow of waste and the volume of waste in the dumpsters. Because the system does not span the entire width of a river, it does not impede wildlife or river traffic. At the time the Interceptor was unveiled, the device was already operational in rivers in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Klang, Malaysia.
Criticism, Recognition, and Honors
Slat's plastic-collecting concept has been criticized by some as inefficient, unrealistic, and/or unworkable by a number of marine scientists. Others have acknowledged it as an innovative band-aid solution that must be accompanied by reduced plastic production in order to truly solve the problem. Slat and The Ocean Cleanup have received many honors, awards, and other recognitions. Honors included the United Nations' Champion of the Earth, The Design Museum's Designs of the Year, Entrepreneur magazine's Entrepreneur's Brilliant 100, and the Norwegian Shipowners Association's Heyerdahl Award.