Purging Plastic Waste from the Oceans

7 min reading time
A revolutionary concept represents a new tool in the fight against plastic waste: Boyan Slat’s “The Ocean Cleanup” project. This system tackles plastic pollution by “fishing” it from the sea. Here, we explain just how The Ocean Cleanup project will work.
The largest cleanup campaign of all time.
The Ocean Cleanup
Here are the five largest plastic waste vortices in our oceans.

Boyan Slat’s battle against the trash vortex

An estimated 150 million metric tons of plastic waste is floating in the world’s seas – equivalent to the weight of approximately 660 large cruise ships. The very largest concentration of plastic in the ocean, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is said to cover an area the size of Europe. Boyan Slat has declared war on these floating garbage dumps, made up of plastic bags, packaging, and bottles. The Dutchman, now 24, first became concerned about the amount of plastic in the ocean when diving in the Mediterranean as a teenager. It was that experience that gave him the idea for The Ocean Cleanup. With the help of the Dutch government and supported by academic institutions including Munich Technical University and the Sorbonne in Paris, Boyan Slat has brought his giant garbage collector to the seas.

The Ocean Cleanup Success Story

  • 2012: At a TEDx conference, Boyan Slat presented the first version of his system for capturing plastic in the ocean.

  • 2014: Through crowdfunding, Boyan Slat raised approximately $2 million to turn his idea into reality.
  • 2015: Research expeditions were conducted for the purpose of measuring marine pollution and testing the concept of the The Ocean Cleanup system.
  • 2016: The first prototypes of the plastic collection system were trialed in the North Sea.
  • 2018: “System 001” underwent two-week-long testing off the California coast and was then transported by trawler to its intended location in the Pacific. The Ocean Cleanup is therefore one year ahead of schedule.

The world’s first floating plastic pollution filter is being deployed in the largest of the five major trash vortices in the seas – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There, in the North Pacific, plastic waste accumulates in the area between Hawaii and the West Coast of the US. What’s more, the vortex of waste is growing by the day. The ambitious aim of the plastic pollution project is to remove half of all the plastic waste in the Pacific over the course of five years.

The Ocean Cleanup drives BMW i3

With the fully electric BMW i3, BMW i is providing Boyan Slat and his team with vehicles whose design is inspired by the same aims as The Ocean Cleanup project: to use innovative ideas for the protection of the environment and natural resources. One such idea is reflected in the fact that 95 percent of the materials used in the BMW i3 can be recycled. By taking such approaches, BMW Group is a pioneer in the field of sustainability, something also shown in the company’s use of green energy to power its entire production chain for the BMW i3. It therefore makes sense that The Ocean Cleanup team in Rotterdam and San Francisco drive BMW i electric cars as they work to combat plastic pollution.

We are happy to support The Ocean Cleanup mission as we share the same mindset.
Dr. Robert Irlinger

Head of BMW i

Using clever technology to fight marine pollution – the concept behind The Ocean Cleanup

  • Supported by a system of buoys, a nearly 2,000-foot plastic boom floats on the surface of the ocean.
  • A kind of curtain is suspended to a depth of 100 feet below the boom. It prevents plastic waste from escaping beneath the barrier.
  • The wind and currents help ensure that the boom forms an enormous U-shape, within which the garbage is collected.
  • Sensors detect when the collected waste is ready to be transported away by ship.

Unfortunately, the collected garbage will not contain any microplastics as the particles are simply too fine for the plastic waste collector. If, however, The Ocean Cleanup succeeds in reducing the vortex of trash made up of PET bottles, bags, and other items of plastic in the ocean, pollution from microplastics will also decline. This is because such particles also arise from the degradation of larger pieces of plastic waste and float almost invisibly in the world’s oceans.

According to initial statements from Boyan Slat, the system is functioning well – with a few caveats. Apparently, the plastic waste collected can escape from inside the U-shaped barrier. The organizers, however, are happy about the fact that relatively small plastic particles are also captured. Only over the mid-term will it be clear how effectively the collection device is in tackling ocean pollution. Over the next few years, The Ocean Cleanup plans to produce 60 more collection booms and position these at some of the worst plastic pollution hotspots around the world’s seas. The project also involves recycling the collected plastic waste. However, the necessary land-based infrastructure is not yet in place. According to Boyan Slat, this will ideally be built at the ports where the ships unload the plastic waste.

The primary goal must be waste prevention

Cleansing the oceans of plastic waste can, however, only be the secondary element in protecting the world’s seas. The primary task lies in significantly reducing the production of plastic and simultaneously recycling more waste. This applies whether plastic pollution occurs in the sea or on land.

Inspired by the future. Built for the present.

The BMW i3.

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