More than 20 years ago, on his way back to California after the Transpacific Yacht Race—an offshore event starting in San Pedro, California, and ending just east of Honolulu, Hawaii, or about 2,225 nautical miles—oceanographer and sailboat racing captain Charles Moore noticed something fishy in the North Pacific. “I could stand on deck for five minutes and see nothing but the detritus of civilization in the remotest part of the great Pacific Ocean,” he wrote on his website.
Plastic. Lots of plastic.
Moore was seeing firsthand the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the popular name for a collection of waste twice the size of Texas. It floats in a gyre where the currents converge between California and Hawaii. According to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which has conducted the most extensive analysis to date of this phenomenon, a total of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic are estimated to be floating in the patch. Most are microplastics, or tiny pieces smaller than a pencil eraser. Nevertheless, the study found that its total mass is equivalent to 500 Boeing 747s.
Most of the garbage was generated on land and improperly disposed of along the shoreline, according to a 2011 report by the EPA. The rest was generated at sea by fishing boats, cargo ships and recreational boats. But before you picture a floating landfill, consider that the majority of plastic particles float slightly below the surface, like a plastic soup.
And it’s a toxic soup. Eighty-four percent of the plastic is believed to contain at least one persistent bioaccumulative toxic chemical (PBT), a compound with a high resistance to degradation that stays in the bloodstream of the sea life that ingests it. Some animals don’t even make it that far, as they get trapped and drowned in discarded fishing nets—called “ghost nets”—that account for 46 percent of the total mass of the Garbage Patch.
This summer, an interdisciplinary team of experts and entrepreneurs are launching a system that is expected to remove half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over the course of five years. -Boyan Slat (at right) founded The Ocean Cleanup Foundation in 2013 when he was 18 years old. Since then, the Netherlands-based team has combined five years of research and prototyping to create a revolutionary Ocean Cleanup Machine.
The system works like a floating window shade. A series of impermeable screens hang vertically from floating pipes that are ½ to 1 mile long; they’re weighted by suspended anchors positioned almost 2,000 feet down. Because deeper water moves more slowly than surface water, this allows the system to move slightly slower than the garbage in order to collect it.
The moving system absorbs the force of storms and allows sea life to pass freely underneath, all while capturing more plastic than a fixed system and producing less bycatch than a trawling system. (A fixed system is limited by downforce, or the sucking of particles underneath the screen; cleanup via trawling nets has been criticized for catching too few microplastics and too many sea creatures.) Once enough plastic is captured, the system sends a signal to the Mission Control Center in San Francisco. The team tracks the precise location of the device and deploys a ship to collect the debris, which is brought to land and sold to manufacturers who use it to create recycled goods, like sunglasses. It promises a biofriendly approach to reversing a human-caused problem.
It’s too early to know whether The Ocean Cleanup Project will be successful, but the team is confident, and the benefits of cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are plenty. Marine life will be at a lower risk of confusing microplastics for food. And when we eat these creatures, we won’t have to worry about the meat potentially transferring toxic chemicals to our bodies.
Cleaning up the Patch might make both humans and wildlife healthier, but absent conscious efforts to cut down on the source, the plastic soup will persist. To complement responsible waste disposal regulations on land, boaters should have a system for collecting and recycling trash on board, and disposing of it properly in port.
The problem, like the ocean, is big. But so is this possible solution.
At 24 years old, Boyan Slat is the youngest recipient of the UN’s highest environmental accolade, Champion of the Earth. In February 2013, he dropped out of engineering school to found The Ocean Cleanup Foundation. His goal is ambitious, if not downright formidable: reduce the cleanup time of the Garbage Patch from millennia to a few years.