Plastic is both the scourge and the savior in our modern world. It has enabled advancements in just about every field of study, moving our civilization steadily forward, yet at the same time it is also a key piece in the massive amount of trash that is covering the Earth and polluting the land and water.
Some of the most notable places where plastic pollution is visible is in the giant trash gyres (trash vortexes) floating in the oceans, which have been studied, written about, and vilified by many, but which have also served as an excellent visual aid for spurring people to action about plastics, recycling, and waste in general.
We know that plastic wastes kill both directly and indirectly, and are responsible for adding tons of harmful chemicals to the oceans, but it's not enough to simply adjust our lifestyles to mitigate the use of plastic. Changing the way we think about plastics will certainly help future generations, yet we still need ways to clean the trash out of the oceans and properly dispose of it.
Not only does [plastic] directly kill hundred-thousands or even millions of aquatic animals annually, its fouling may spread harmful algae and other invasive species, and furthermore serves as a transport medium for pollutants (including PCB and DDT), accumulating in the food chain.
Plastic pollution costs governments, companies and individuals millions of dollars in damages per year, due to loss in tourism, vessel damages and (inefficient) beach clean-ups.
Plastic remediation will be extremely effective, but it must be remembered that a clean-up operation will always need to be paired with prevention (on land) in order to succeed.
We'll need a combination of both worlds, and we'll need them soon. - The Ocean Cleanup Project
And that's where 19-year-old Boyan Slat, an Aerospace Engineering student at TU Delft, comes in. Slat's Ocean Cleanup Array concept combines long booms that float on the surface of the ocean with anchored processing platforms that can collect and separate plastic trash for removal and recycling.
The Ocean Cleanup Array project would place networks of booms around the various garbage patches, which would act to funnel the trash into processing platforms using the natural currents of the ocean. According to the website, the arrays could clean up a gyre in just five years, and are capable of removing 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the oceans.
Slat's design came out of a school paper about the possibility of remediation of the ocean garbage patches, which went on to win numerous accolades, including Best Technical Design 2012 at the Delft University of Technology. He developed the concept even further that year, and presented it at TedXDelft 2012.
While this invention is still just a concept, a non-profit was founded earlier this year, the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which is working to take the development of the idea from the drawing board to the ocean. Right now, the Foundation needs financial backing to finish several feasibility studies and is looking for several key people to help with the research.
Find out more at Boyan Slat.