Mile-long ocean plastic cleanup device to launch as pilot project next year

Ocean Cleanup Array pilot project rendering
© Ocean Cleanup

Boyan Slat's Ocean Cleanup Array may be one solution to cleaning up ocean plastics, or it may be just another bad idea with good intentions.

Two years ago, we (and virtually every other green website) covered the idea of then 19-year-old Boyan Slat's idea for a floating "Ocean Cleanup Array" designed to begin cleaning up some of the unbelievable amount of floating plastic trash that is polluting our oceans.

Slat, then an Aerospace Engineering student at TU Delft, claimed that his design could clean up one of the ocean's gyres that accumulate plastics and other marine trash in about 5 years, and could remove millions of tons of plastic from the water. The comments and responses to that idea ranged from "I'll take any bets that it's never built" to "It's technomagic with no science behind it" to "It’s a great story, but it’s just a story."

Since then, the Ocean Cleanup Array has undergone a year-long feasibility study, which found that such a device "is indeed likely to be a feasible means of cleaning up almost half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within 10 years," and although there seems to be numerous flaws in the concept (one of which is the vast amount of "microplastics" which can't be strained out with the array), that hasn't stopped the project. In the second quarter of 2016, a two-year pilot project of the device in real-world conditions is expected to be launched off the coast of Tsushima, an island lying between Japan and South Korea, where the efficacy of its plastic trash removal capabilities will be evaluated.

The Ocean Cleanup Array pilot will feature floating booms spanning some 2000 meters (1.2 miles) across the surface of the water, which would be "the longest floating structure ever deployed in the ocean," according to the project website. Assuming all goes according to plan, and the array is able to effectively extract floating ocean plastic during the pilot project, the organization plans to deploy a "62-mile-long array that will be capable of capturing about half of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch" over the course of a decade, according to Al Jazeera.

This is an ambitious project, and worth watching to see if the pilot program plays out as expected, but even if it is as effective as claimed, it's still just an end-of-life solution for plastic pollution, which the organization agrees with:

"The Ocean Cleanup can significantly reduce the concentration of plastics in the 'ocean garbage patches', but it is just a part of the solution. To be more precise, it is of paramount importance to also 'close the tap', to prevent more plastic from entering the oceans in the first place."

In the meantime, while we're all waiting for full deployment of these giant ocean vacuum cleaners to suck up our dirty mess of plastic trash, we still need to focus on the top of the pollution chain, by reducing our own plastic consumption and urging manufacturers and policy makers to tackle the issues where they begin, on the land.

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