Student’s Corner

What is The Ocean Cleanup?

If you’ve read anything about the oceans in the past few years, you’ve probably heard about the enormous plastic pollution problem, with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as the poster child for this issue. One non-profit organization that’s working on reducing plastic pollution is The Ocean Cleanup which has pledged to remove 90% of floating ocean plastic by 2040.

How did it start?

A few years before he founded this hugely popular non-profit, Boyan Slat was scuba diving in Greece where he noticed how many more plastic bags there were in the water than fish. This prompted him to research plastic pollution for a school project and in 2012 he gave what became a viral TEDx talk about how to use technology to remove plastic from the oceans. The momentum from this video allowed him to leave school and found The Ocean Cleanup in 2013.

The non-profit now employs 120 people from engineers, researchers, scientists, computational modelers, and other supporting roles. They are devoted to reducing plastic pollution by cleaning up the oceans and preventing plastic from entering the oceans through rivers. On their website they point out that plastic pollution impacts nearly 700 million marine species and costs the world between $6-19 billion US dollars due to impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, and the cost of cleanups. There’s also the risk of plastics breaking down into microplastics and entering the food chain and making its way into humans as well as marine animals. 

How does it work?

The Ocean Cleanup has two different strategies for reducing plastic pollution: actively removing plastic from the oceans and setting up systems to block plastic from entering through rivers. 

Out in the ocean, the circulating currents in garbage patches move plastic debris around, forming spots of higher concentration. The Ocean Cleanup uses computational modeling to predict where the hotspots are and place their cleanup systems in the correct spots to maximize the amount of plastic picked up. These systems look like a giant U with boats pulling at the either ends with all of the plastic being collected at the bottom of the U. Once the system is full, the caught plastic is brought back to the land and is recycled. They predict that they will need ten fully operational systems to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is home to over 100 million kilograms of plastic.

According to The Ocean Cleanup’s research, rivers are the main source of ocean plastic pollution and 1,000 rivers are responsible for roughly 80% of river plastic pollution. They have a few variations of their “interceptor” systems deployed in six countries. The Interceptor Original is a large autonomous floating system that is currently working on Indonesia, Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam. The Interceptor Barrier is a U-shaped floating permeable barrier anchored around the mouth of a small river that intercepts trash and holds it until it can be removed while letting all of the water pass through. The Interceptor Tender is a barge with a conveyor belt that works in conjunction with Interceptor Barriers to extract the trash collected and bring it to a dumpster on shore. Lastly, there’s the Interceptor Trashfence is a waste-capturing chain-link fence which was inspired by avalanche protection systems. It is anchored to the banks and bed of a river and captures waste while the water runs through. It’s currently being piloted in one of the world’s most polluting rivers, Rio Las Vacas in Guatemala.

Learn more

Want to learn more about The Ocean Cleanup and follow their progress? Their website is full of information on their projects and you can even track their progress on their dashboard. 

Written by Sarah Woodams ‘24(T5)

Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash