Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2013 when he was just 18 years old in his hometown of Delft, the Netherlands. The foundation aims to develop sustainable technologies capable of cleaning up plastic from the ocean. After working for the past five years on one such technology, a passive system that moves with ocean currents and uses the natural oceanic forces to catch and concentrate plastic, System 001 is finally ready to launch. Tomorrow.
But let’s back up a moment. Have you ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? If no, take a minute to watch the video below so you can understand what the enormity of what we’re dealing with.
Because of ocean currents, plastics and other garbage and debris tend to concentrate in five large areas. The difficulty with this is that these areas are extremely vast, some, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, covering millions of square kilometers. Cleaning up such a large area using conventional means of vessels and nets just isn’t plausible because of cost and time. And that’s where System 001 comes in.
“Like a giant snake, made up of sections of tube, it's [System 001] 600m long and will float in a giant 'U' shape,” explains BBC News. “Beneath it a screen will hang down 3m. Because the plastic is floating just at or slightly below the surface, it only drifts with the force of the ocean currents. But because the collection system is also being shifted by the wind and waves, it should travel about one knot faster, shepherding the plastic into a dense mass.”
The hope is that this system will clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years, and maybe even a plastic-free ocean by 2050. But even Slat is hesitant to commit to specific statistics, given the uncertainty of many variables.
One of the aspects that System 001 has on its side is that much of the plastic in the Great Pacific patch is categorized as larger debris – meaning it has yet to be degraded into microplastics less than 5 mm large. This makes capturing and recovering the plastics more feasible, and also may allow for more recycling efforts of the collected plastics.
"We feel we're in a great hurry," says Lonneke Holierhoek, the project's chief operating officer. "If we don't do it," Lonneke tells me, "all this plastic will start breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces - and the smaller the pieces are, the more harmful and the harder to extract from the marine environment."
System 001 is set to launch out of the San Francisco Bay in almost exactly 24 hours from now. You can follow the launch virtually here.