More than 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently litter the oceans, and about 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year, making up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. And this amount entering the ocean is expected to nearly triple to 29 million tons annually by 2040, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Meanwhile, there are five giant plastic garbage patches in the ocean, to be exact: the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the North Pacific, the South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean garbage patch, which have a significant impact on the ocean. This is because not only are coasts polluted by plastic trash, but the trash also harms marine animals in particular, which can get caught in larger pieces and mistake smaller pieces for food and swallow them. Swallowing plastic particles can prevent them from digesting normal food and cause toxic chemical pollutants to build up in their organisms. Humans also ingest plastic through the food chain. The effects on health are as yet unknown.
Numerous projects and organizations are committed to combating plastic pollution in our oceans, one project that has been launched to much media attention is The Ocean Cleanup. The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization that develops advanced technologies to rid the oceans of plastic and was founded in 2013 by Boyan Slat, a 19-year-old Dutchman at the time. The goal is to remove 90% of floating plastic from the oceans by 2040.
The plastic catcher consists of a long tube-like or hose-like u-shaped construction made of plastic, which is supposed to be up to 600 meters long, depending on the model, and float on the sea like a crescent moon. Below it, a five-meter-long plastic curtain hangs down into the water. The plastic waste is supposed to stick to this curtain. The system should also be able to trap plastic as small as 1mm. To ensure that this floating barrier does not float in front of the garbage, but catches it, it has an anchor that hangs freely in the water at a depth of 600 meters. This slows down the floating body so that the current drive the trash in. Every few weeks, a ship is then supposed to come by and collect the trash and transport it back to shore, where it is recycled or incinerated.
May 2018 saw the first deployment, of the system after several experiments with prototypes since 2016. The system 001, about 120m long, was tested for about two weeks 90km from the Golden Gate Bridge on the open sea. However, there were some problems and the captured plastic could not be held as planned. The system collected 8.2 tons of plastic during the 120-hour deployment this August, which is less than the normal load of a garbage truck equivalent
The project has a very ambitious goal and also brings some good points because it proposes a solution to a huge problem. It makes use of the force of the wind, waves, and currents to capture plastic on the open sea, which is almost impossible to do in any other way. It also tries to impact wildlife as little as possible, as larger marine life such as fish or turtles can dive through under the filter. Furthermore, it tries to reverse or reduce the negative effects caused by plastic.
However, there are also many negative sides and problems with the project, because first of all the project is enormously complex and extremely expensive one estimates that, one, to remove approximately 20,000 tons hundreds of million-dollar would need. In addition, the constant transportation of the ships emits a lot of exhaust gases and requires a lot of fossil fuels, which in turn are harmful to our environment. Furthermore, the system can only remove plastic with a density lower than saltwater, plastic located in the deep sea cannot be removed. And finally, recent trials have shown that the systems still have many flaws and problems and are definitely not as effective as hoped.
All in all, The Ocean Cleanup is a good idea from my point of view, but cannot be implemented in reality as it should be. In addition, the project only fights the symptom and not the cause, which gives the feeling that we as a society do not have to change anything and this way of thinking is fatal. To start at the end, when the plastic is already floating in the sea is too late – we have to focus on our general plastic handling in general.