The polluting of the oceans is an ever-growing problem as more and more garbage – especially plastics – end up being dumped in our liquid ecosystem.
A 2015 study by the University of California at Santa Barbara illuminated just how dire the situation has really become. The study revealed that nearly eight million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year – and that number is rising all the time.
A Texas-Sized Problem
The problem is particularly acute in the Pacific.
Debris from the U.S. west coast is picked up by ocean currents, which carry it way into the ocean. That trash then becomes trapped in a revolving spiral known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the Pacific Trash Vortex.
Amazingly, that “Patch” is now the size of Texas and is believed to contain a third of the world’s oceanic plastic! Even worse, the area is only growing in size, rather than breaking down and shrinking, because most plastic waste is non-biodegradable.
Attempting to clean up that mess is an expensive proposition.
Using ships to dredge that debris and haul it back to the coast would be costly and time-consuming. And marine animals often get caught in the nets used to pick up the trash which only compounds the danger that pollution already poses to the natural environment.
Help – in the form of a cheaper, sea life-friendly alternative – is on the way.
The Ocean Cleanup Barrier
The newest and most promising decontamination option comes from a non-profit organization in the Netherlands called Ocean Cleanup, which is partnering with the Dutch government as well as the dredging and marine contracting company, Royal Boskalis Westminster NV (KKWFF).
Ocean Cleanup’s innovative solution is a floating ocean barrier that passively collects the plastic trash. The barrier would remain stationary in the water and simply use the ocean’s own current to gather the garbage and contain it for removal. In effect, the barrier would form an artificial coastline.
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Since most of the ocean’s current will pass under the screen, sea life can avoid being caught.
The goal of Ocean Cleanup is – by 2020 – to set-up a 100-kilometer (62 mile) barrier between California and Hawaii. Scientists believe such a structure will be able to gather about half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years’ time.
But, of course, the sea-worthiness of such a structure must be tested in real-life conditions.
North Sea Test
On June 22, a 100-meter-long prototype (named Boomy McBoomface, as seen in this article’s feature image) was hauled out to the North Sea. It is stationed 12 nautical miles off the Dutch coast, where it will remain for a year. It is hoped it will capture about 80% of the surface plastics it encounters.
The prototype is made up of a chain of rectangular rubber buoys (similar to a boom that cleans up oil slicks) and a two-meter deep screen that forms a weighted “curtain” that passively catches trash as water passes through it. The prototype is moored by a cable system so it forms a long, flat V-shape. The trash is expected to accumulate mainly in the center of the V, which will make it easier for ships to pick up the trash.
Sensors on the prototype will track its every motion and the stresses placed on it. If it survives the harsh North Sea conditions – which are much worse than in the Pacific – it will speed up progress on the plans to clean up the Pacific.
The founder of Ocean Cleanup, 21-year old Boyan Slat, believes there is a 30% chance the prototype may not survive the full year in the North Sea. But even if it does not, this first initiative will provide added knowledge and insight that will allow for improvements upon the following attempts.
The next test is already slated to involve a 2000-meter-long capture system that will be deployed off the coast of Tsushima Island in Japan. This test is scheduled to occur in the second half of 2017.
Hopefully, these tests will prove successful. If so, they will finally allow for a plan to clean up that pile of plastic trash in the Pacific – not to mention push humanity ever closer to undoing the damage done to the planet.