The world’s oceans contain millions of tons of trash, much of it collected into vast gyres of plastic and debris. Even if humanity stopped putting garbage in the water today, researchers project that these garbage patches would continue growing for hundreds of years. One such trash vortex, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, already spans hundreds of miles.
How do we get all that garbage out? Boyan Slat, a 19-year-old Dutch aeronautical engineering student, is raising $2 million to build an ocean cleanup contraption he designed to passively funnel garbage to specific collection points. Working with a team of over 100 people, he recently released a 528-page feasibility study (PDF) detailing how the complex technology works and grappling with questions of legality, costs, environmental impact, and potential pitfalls.
Slat’s plan, expressed simply, is to deploy several V-shaped floating barriers that would be moored to the seabed and placed in the path of major ocean currents. The 30-mile-long arms of the V are designed to catch buoyant garbage and trash floating three meters below the surface while allowing sea life to pass underneath. “Because no nets would be used, a passive cleanup may well be harmless to the marine ecosystem,” he writes in the feasibly study.
Over time, the trash would flow deeper into the V , from which it would then be extracted. The report estimates that the plastic collection rate would total 65 cubic meters per day and that the trash would have to be picked up by ship every 45 days. Slat hopes to offset costs by recycling the collected plastic for other uses.
One limitation is that the Ocean Cleanup machine won’t pick up tiny plastic particles, which tend to distribute over greater depths and pollute the entire ocean, including the Arctic. “Particles smaller than 0.1 mm are not caught whereas all particles larger than 1 mm are estimated to be caught,” wrote the cleanup team via e-mail. Still, many of these tiny particles have been and will be produced by the breakdown of larger bits of plastic. “In that view,” wrote the team, “we will greatly reduce the number of microscopic particles over time.”
The money to build a pilot version is already trickling in. Barely seven days into a 100-day crowd funding campaign, the Ocean Cleanup already has more than 3,300 backers who have contributed nearly $200,000.