It’s no secret. We have got a trash
problem. Every year, we produce about 300 million metric tons of plastic globally. These plastics
can end up in rivers, oceans, and eventually our food chain. But a group called The Ocean
Cleanup says that their new suite of technologies can help address this growing problem.
When a piece of plastic finds its way into the ocean, exposure to sunlight and the elements
work to break it down into smaller and smaller fragments. Marine animals often mistake plastic
trash for food, which can lead to malnutrition and a potential build-up of toxic chemicals
in their bodies. And since humans are a part of the food chain, plastics find their way
into us, too. With all this in mind, The Ocean Cleanup team
set about tackling the world’s largest accumulation zone: The Pacific trash vortex, or proverbially
known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, It’s an area in the ocean that’s bounded by
the massive North Pacific Subtropical Gyre and about three times the size of France,
containing more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.
Here’s how The Ocean Cleanup’s system works. A 160 meter floater gives the system
buoyancy, while an attached extended cork line floats above a 3 meter deep netted skirt.
The skirt is long enough to catch plastic, but short enough for marine creatures to swim
beneath. It’s deeper in the center, so that the current’s pressure pushes the system
into a U-shape, funneling plastic into the net. A parachute at the back drags in the
water to control speed, and the whole system is equipped with GPS to monitor its location.
This October, after a year of system testing and several setbacks along the way—including
a snapped floater—the Ocean Cleanup team has announced that its plastic collecting
system is working. Despite this recent success, the team has
faced its fair share of criticism, as some experts believe that the device could pose
harm to marine life, and particularly neuston, which exclusively live
on the ocean surface. But perhaps the biggest criticism launched against The Ocean Cleanup
has been from those who say that building an expensive structure far from shore ignores
the more practical and cost-effective measures that are already in existence, like volunteer
beach cleanups and waterway technologies like Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel, which can stop
plastic before it reaches the ocean. It looks like The Ocean Cleanup team took
these criticisms seriously, because while they were busy iterating the design of their
offshore ocean cleanup system, they were also working on a super-secret side project. At
a press conference last week, they unveiled The Interceptor— a system designed to capture
plastic closer to shore. More specifically, at the mouth of rivers.
To help focus their efforts on the most-polluting rivers first, the Ocean Cleanup team set about
to measure exactly how much plastic is flowing out of our rivers and entering the ocean.
Based on this research, they found that just 1% of the world’s rivers —or 1,000 out
of 100,000—are responsible for roughly 80% of the ocean’s garbage, with small urban
rivers contributing the most to pollution. They made it their goal to tackle all 1,000
of these rivers by 2025. To catch the waste, the Interceptor is anchored
into the riverbed at a strategic location where plastic is concentrated and boats have
enough room to pass. Plastic waste is guided by the floating barrier into the mouth of
the Interceptor, which the river current helps push onto a conveyor belt. As the debris moves
across the belt, it’s separated from the water and delivered to the shuttle, which
distributes the trash into one of six dumpsters. Sensors detect when the dumpsters are full,
at which point a text is automatically sent to local operators saying that, ahem, “it is
time to take out your trash”. The trash is then carted off to waste management for processing.
At peak performance, this solar-powered device can extract more than 100,000 kilograms of
trash per day. The comparative cost between this and other cleanup efforts is not yet
known, though The Ocean Cleanup says the Interceptors are ultimately cheaper than deploying nothing at all. And their Interceptors are already hard at
work, cleaning up waterways in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Malaysia’s Klang River. The group is also
preparing to deploy two more systems in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and Santo Domingo in the Dominican
Republic, a place you may remember from last year’s viral videos showing giant waves
of plastic garbage after heavy rains. Thailand and LA County are also in talks with the group.
But to see how much plastic The Ocean Cleanup is able to keep from reaching our oceans,
we’ll first need to see how effective the initial Interceptors actually are. To reach
their goal of deploying systems at 1,000 rivers by 2025, it’s estimated that a new Interceptor will need to be deployed every 2 days. The question is, can they really do it? With a little luck, we
may soon see a fleet of these devices tidying up our rivers and oceans for future generations.
If you want to learn more about the Great Pacific Garbage, check out this episode here.
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