On a diving trip in Greece a while ago, 19 year old Boyan Slat and his diving companion came across more plastic bags while beneath the waves then they did marine life. The ghost-like silhouettes that bobbed through the water outnumbered any fish in the area, providing a grim glimpse into the way our garbage pollutes the ocean.
Armed with these stark below-the-surface visuals and knowledge about just how much plastic ends up in the ocean, Slat has been creating techniques to efficiently rid the water of plastic. Originally starting out using trawling technology (which he calibrated to ensure he wasn’t scooping up plankton), Slat has been forever tweaking his ideas in an effort to achieve that elusive balance of high output and low impact. With his recently unveiled latest idea, titled "The Ocean Cleanup Array", he may have done just that.
Still in development phase, the Ocean Cleanup Array presents a ground-breaking way of dealing with plastic in our oceans. Rather than relying on attaching trawls to the back of boats and chasing plastic patches as they migrate through the water, the concept would be stationary, consisting of a network of floating booms connected to processing platforms that can be installed or dispatched wherever necessary.
The booms would be specifically engineered to funnel plastic in the direction of a central platform (attached to the booms) where a tailor-made robotic system would sort plastic from plankton and store it for recycling.
The platforms themselves would be powered entirely using renewable sources such as the sun and water and Slat and his team of researchers and developers are currently conducting a feasibility study to determine the efficacy of this idea and how much plastic it could collect.
Plastic constitutes about 90 percent of all garbage found in the ocean. Most of it gets there via land trough rivers and waterways and then accumulates in five areas of high concentration, called gyres (check out the website of the organisation 5GYRES for some very insightful facts about these plastic garbage patches). The plastic gyre in the Pacific Ocean (also dubbed the world’s largest landfill) is roughly the same size as the state of Texas in the USA with garbage in the area outnumbering plankton (if you measure in terms of pounds) 6 to 1.
Though still a long way off from actual implementation, the idea is leaps and bounds ahead of current plastic collection methods, accounting for the fact that movement of oceanic plastic garbage patches can be difficult to map. The project could also prove to be financially viable with Slat and his team looking to sell the recycled plastic. In the coming months, Slat will release the results of the feasibility study. Keep track of the project via Slat’s website or the dedicated Facebook page and check out Slat’s TEDxTalk on the topic.