How technology is being used to solve the waste problem of ocean plastic

Behind the interceptor barrier for the Ocean Clean-up in Kingston Harbour, Jamaica, are stacks of plastic bottles

For Dutch businessman Boyan Slat, attempting to address the issue of ocean plastic pollution has been a "long and painful journey.".

The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit environmental organization founded by a 28-year-old man, has been researching methods to remove plastic waste from the Pacific Ocean for almost ten years.

He told BBC News that it has been more difficult than he ever anticipated.

It turns out that the planet is fairly large, Boyan said.

"The first few years were really about trying to understand the problem. There are about 1,000 rivers that we need to address, as well as five ocean garbage patches. ".

The North Pacific Ocean is home to the largest collection of ocean plastic in the world, also known as "the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.".

It has been one of the main targets for The Ocean Cleanup team due to the significant accumulation of plastic debris it has collected, which ranges in size from large fishing nets to flake-sized microplastics.

The Ocean Cleanup makes use of a long, u-shaped barrier that boats pull through piles of trash. It moves slowly in an effort to protect marine life.

Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered cameras are being used to continuously scan the ocean's surface for plastic and calibrate the team's computer models, which is assisting them in deciding which areas of the Pacific to target.

There are some areas of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that are almost completely empty and other areas that have a very high density of plastic, he said.

"We can obviously be a lot more effective in our clean-up operation if we are continuously cleaning up inside those hotspots. ".

The company's second system of its kind, measuring 800 meters (2,600 feet), collects plastic that is periodically transported to land and emptied for recycling.

The Ocean Cleanup crew sorts through plastic on a ship deck after an extraction
Following an extraction, the Ocean Cleanup team goes through the plastic on a ship deck.

Boyan claimed that the system has already removed nearly 200,000 kilograms (440,000 lbs) of marine debris.

Even though this amounts to just 0.02% of the 100 million kilograms of plastic that make up the largest patch of plastic waste in the world, he insisted that it was still worthwhile because "everything big starts small, right?".

By the end of this year, the team estimates that using its current system, it will have collected 1% of the patch; however, they are expanding their operations in an effort to clean up patches more quickly.

For use in the summer, they are creating System 3, a 2 point 4 km (1 point 49 mi) long enormous barrier.

The Ocean Cleanup anticipates that the deployment of ten of these larger systems in the near future will enable the removal of up to 80% of the plastic waste in the North Pacific by the end of the decade.

Mock-up image comparing the size of its new, larger floating barrier to its current 800m system
A new system that is three times as big as the one it currently has is being developed by the Ocean Cleanup.

According to research done by the company in 2021, about 1,000 of the world's rivers are the origin of 80% of the plastic pollution in the world's oceans.

According to Boyan, "the rivers are really the arteries that carry trash from land to sea.". Therefore, when it rains, plastic from the streets washes into the creeks, rivers, and ultimately the ocean. ".

He claims that rivers' swift flow can make preventing plastic even more challenging.

In rivers, he claimed, "you really only have one shot at catching the plastic because it just flows by and if you don't catch it, it's guaranteed to enter the ocean.".

Rubbish accumulates behind the barrier of an Interceptor system in Ballona Creek, California
In Ballona Creek, California, trash assembles behind a barrier of an Interceptor system.

The Ocean Cleanup attempts to intercept trash in rivers before it enters the ocean by using its "Interceptor" solutions.

The technology used for these varies depending on the river in question's width, depth, flow rate, and debris type, all of which are measured using AI-powered cameras.

For the majority of deployments, a conveyor belt is used to remove the trash from the water.

Boyan stated, "We are intercepting plastic in 11 rivers across the globe, but ultimately aim to scale this to all 1,000 of the world's most heavily polluted rivers. ".

Plastic rubbish gathered by an Interceptor moving along a conveyor belt
On the conveyor belt of an Interceptor, trash filtered from the Klang River in Selangor, Malaysia, is transported.

According to Prof. Richard Lampitt of the National Oceanography Centre, using boats to transport nets and plastic from ocean garbage patches to ports could have a significant carbon cost.

Years later, he claims he is still skeptical about this, but he is much more optimistic about focusing on trash in rivers.

The environmental costs, he claimed, are drastically reduced. "You don't have to travel 1,500 km to get the goods. ".

Prof. Lampitt noted the dangers that microplastics pose to the marine ecosystem's core, but added that he believed that rather than eliminating plastic from our oceans, "it is really a matter of stopping the tap and stopping this material from getting into the ocean.".

He said, "I cannot imagine any way that you can remove these from the natural environment from the ocean without severely harming the food webs, and of course it taking an awful lot of energy to do it.

Boyan Slat stands on a beach covered in plastic bottles and items in Honduras
Boyan expressed his hope that in the future, The Ocean Cleanup wouldn't be necessary.

Boyan has high hopes for the future, despite the fact that combating the global problem of marine pollution is undoubtedly difficult and dependent on lower plastic production and consumption in the first place.

"I firmly believe that we will be able to put ourselves out of business in the not-too-distant future with these technologies to clean up the legacy pollution in the ocean and to intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the oceans," he continued.

The complete report is available on Click.

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