Filtering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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From top left: CEO of The Ocean Cleanup Mr. Boyan Slat, mock model of passive cleanup barrier, debris collection silo, Garbage Patch close up. Nebai Hernandez '16

The Ocean Cleanup is testing and improving the technology necessary to achieve the unprecedented goal of cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a polluted area of ocean that extends between Japan and California. Mr. Boyan Slat, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Ocean Cleanup, founded the initiative in 2013 with the goal of cleaning up to 42 percent of the garbage patch by 2030 with new passive barrier technology to better filter ocean pollution without harming ocean ecosystems.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch consists of two concentrated areas of accumulated debris, ranging from nets and bottles to microplastic dumped from landfills. The Patch is created by intersecting ocean currents that form gyres. The garbage that accumulates in these slowly swirling vortexes is swallowed by fish and mammals that humans may later catch and consume. These gyres are hard to spot from the air since the majority of the pollution is just below the water surface and largely made up of small, clear plastics, according to nationalgeographic.org

From top left: CEO of The Ocean Cleanup Mr. Boyan Slat, mock model of passive cleanup barrier, debris collection silo, Garbage Patch close up. Nebai Hernandez '16
From top left: Mr. Boyan Slat, mock model of passive cleanup barrier, debris collection silo, Garbage Patch close up. Nebai Hernandez ’16

“Everyone said to me: ‘Oh there’s nothing you can do about plastic once it gets into the oceans,’ and I wondered whether that was true,” Mr. Slat said, according to bbc.com.
After a non-profit crowdfunding campaign raised 2.2 million dollars from over 160 countries, Mr. Slat assembled a team of about 100 people to perform feasibility studies. Through these studies, they proved the technology viable and the cleanup conductible, and carried out testing and exploration needed to begin the cleanup process, according to wsj.com.
In August 2015, the Ocean Cleanup conducted an expedition in which 30 vessels left the coast of California to analyze the extent of the pollution in the Eastern Garbage Patch, a segment of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located between California and Hawaii.  This expedition will also help catalogue the Western Garbage Patch which converges between Japan and Hawaii.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch accounts for approximately one third of the world’s ocean pollution. The pollution has negative economic, environmental, and health effects that only increase as approximately 8 million tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year, according to theoceancleanup.com
Convent of the Sacred Heart senior Alana Maguire chose the documentary Plastic Paradise for an assigned presentation on the topic of the Great Pacific Patch for one of the Honors Environmental Science class’ third trimester projects. She learned about the excessive amounts of plastic waste circling in gyres in the ocean, the harmful nature of microplastics, and the lack of awareness surrounding the issue.
“When I was watching Plastic Paradise I was very surprised and I felt that it was something that a lot of people are not educated on, which makes the Garbage Patch such a problem,” Alana said.
Until now, research and awareness regarding the polluted state of the Pacific Ocean has focused more on the prevention of further pollution than ocean cleanup. This has led to efforts to stop waste products from entering rivers and banning some of the most common pollutants, such as plastic bags, from nearly 100 municipalities in California, according to The New York Times.
“What a lot of people do not realize is that a lot of plastic gets into our food. Even when you clean fish and take the plastic out, the fish have absorbed the chemicals in that plastic which we then consume,” Alana said.
Education Director of Algalita Marine Research and Education in Long Beach, California Ms. Katie Allen compares the Pacific Garbage Patch to a type of cancer and ocean cleanups to invasive surgery.
“Most plastic pollution researchers agree that ocean cleanup is a radical approach to the issue. Many will even denounce it as impractical and overly idealistic. However, this engineering challenge should not be ignored completely… just as surgery for a cancer patient is sometimes our last-ditch effort,” Ms. Allen said, according to algalita.org.
The cleanup technology consists of placing large-scale floating V-shaped barriers throughout the ocean to collect trash. The permeable membranes allow the ocean current to pass through while sea life flows under them. This gentle technology and the successful crowdfunding campaign may address the cost and feasibility concerns of such an endeavor.
The Ocean Cleanup has recently tested its barriers at the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands (MARIN), where they discovered more accurate 3D modeling of currents and weather conditions at sea. This represents a step into large-scale testing which will make the barrier joint flexible and durable enough to withstand ocean conditions.
The next goal for the engineering team at The Ocean Cleanup is to create a coastal pilot which will deploy off of the coast of the island Tsukishima in Japan which suffers directly from pollution of the Western gyre. The pilot is scheduled for the end of 2016 so engineers can implement results from the current testing of a 100 meter long barrier deployed on the North Sea off of the coast of the Netherlands, according to the oceancleanup.com.
“Anything that we can do to clean it up is great, but we have to make sure we are not polluting in the first place,” Alana said.
– Nebai Hernandez, Staff Writer