Clean energy, clean sea: the Ocean Cleanup Project

Around eight million tons of plastic finds its way into the ocean each year. One Dutch teenager wanted to change that.

5 min read
Around eight million tons of plastic finds its way into the ocean each year. One Dutch teenager wanted to change that.

The Ocean Cleanup Project is the brainchild of Dutch teenager, Boyan Slat, a keen scuba diver horrified at the amount of plastic rubbish floating in the world’s oceans. As an engineering student, Slat proposed solar-powered extractors which use floating barriers to capture plastic drifting on ocean currents – plastic that can then be recycled to help fund the cleanup program.

Around eight million tons of plastic finds its way into the ocean each year, with much of it accumulating in five giant garbage patches created by swirling global currents. As the plastic breaks into smaller and smaller particles, it doesn’t just pose a choking and strangulation hazard to animals, it’s also ingested by marine life where it becomes part of the food chain.

This plastic absorbs toxins, further increasing the risks to all life.

The Ocean Cleanup is born

Determined to rid the oceans of this toxic threat, Slat dropped out of his aerospace engineering degree to found the Ocean Cleanup Project. He led an international team of 100 scientists and engineers to produce a 500-page feasibility study that found the cleanup project was technically feasible and financially viable.

Crowd-funding efforts raised more than $2 million for the project in only 100 days, with 38,000 supporters from 160 countries, making it one of the most successful non-profit crowd-funding campaigns in history.

After research expeditions and a proof of concept, the first major deployment phase of the Ocean Cleanup Project began in 2016. It involved deploying a two-kilometre long floating barrier off the coast of Tsushima – an island located between Japan and South Korea. As the longest man-made floating structure in history, the barrier traps plastic floating in the top few metres of the water – funnelling it into a filtering plant – while letting marine life pass safely underneath.

Solar meets sea

Powered by solar panels and ocean currents, the filtering plant uses a mesh conveyor to scoop out large debris. Smaller plastic particles are separated from the water using centrifugal forces and collected for recycling. By relying on solar power, the filtering plants are self-sustaining and don’t further contribute to the world’s pollution problems.

A cleaner future

The Ocean Cleanup Project will continue to expand over the next few years, with plans to deploy a 100-kilometre long floating barrier to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an area of rubbish larger than Texas that floats in the ocean between Hawaii and California.

Around half the plastic floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will be extracted over 10 years, with the plastic storage containers emptied every few months. Along with recycling, there is also the potential to convert the plastic into oil.

Rather than wait for plastic to reach the garbage patches in the middle of the ocean, the next stage of the Ocean Cleanup Project will target river deltas and other waterways in an effort to collect plastic before it reaches the sea.

When clean energy powers a cleaner planet, everyone wins.