Drowning in Plastic

A Dutch company has set up operations at Alameda Point, where it hopes to launch an ambitious invention that will clean up plastic from the world’s oceans.


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A Dutch company, Ocean Cleanup, at Alameda Point has created a device to remote ocean plastics.

With its rundown barracks and huge airplane hangars, Alameda Point has provided many a dystopian-looking backdrop for scenes in Mythbusters and The Matrix Reloaded. But on a weekday afternoon in June, the former naval air station was the site of the beginning of a real-life apocalyptical quest: to clean up the plastic that’s currently polluting the world’s oceans.

“Out there, between Hawaii and California, lies the largest accumulation zone of plastic in the world,” said Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, 24, gesturing toward the Pacific Ocean, where an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic drift in massive fields of debris, trapped by currents and light winds in a vast area known as the North Pacific Gyre, or Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In a site visit on an assembly yard with reporters, Slat described these vast but disparate accumulations of plastics as “a ticking time bomb” that entangles marine life, damages ecosystems, harms fishing, shipping, and tourism — and enters the food chain, potentially threatening human life. Noting that 92 percent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch consists of fishing nets, buoys, buckets, and large pieces of debris, Slat said, “If we don’t clean it up, that 92 percent will become micro plastics, and then it’s a much worse situation.”

Slat is on a mission to remove 90 percent of the plastic that’s currently in the world’s oceans by the year 2040. He was only 18 when he founded The Ocean Cleanup, a Netherlands-based nonprofit that develops technology to collect plastics from the ocean. Now the company has established an office at Alameda Point, which Ocean Cleanup’s communications officer Claire Verhagen called, “the ideal basecamp for the launch of Cleanup System No. 1.”

While Slat spoke, a team of Ocean Cleanup engineers were stress-testing 40-foot lengths of pipeline that will eventually create a barrier-like system that Slat hopes to tow out to the gyre to begin cleaning up the ocean, later this year. Coastlines, he explained, are, unfortunately, very effective at collecting plastic: “So why not build an artificial coastline — a U-shaped floating barrier that acts like a funnel?” Slat said.

Slat compared the basic idea behind his invention to an artificial coastline, a V- or U-shaped array that will drift slightly slower than but in the direction of the gyre currents, thereby gathering debris along this artificial barrier, which then funnels it into processing platforms, where ships can dock and retrieve the plastic. 

His proposed system is also energy-neutral, thanks to a design that will allow wind, waves, and currents to propel it through the gyre at slower speeds than the debris. Indeed, only the support vessels that will bring the accumulated plastic back to shore will require fuel. 

But what if the system, which weighs 400 tons and is made of petroleum-derived high-density polyethylene, breaks and litters the ocean? Slat said independent monitors will be on hand to assess its stability, but the system is designed not to sink. “But it is the first time this technology has been deployed at sea,” Slat acknowledged. Joost Dubois, The Ocean Cleanup’s communications head, listed numerous procedures the system must go through before it’s towed to the gyre. “We’re not pirates; we are working together with a lot of authorities,” Dubois said, noting that the system has a 20-year life expectancy and therefore will have to come in for maintenance.

From a fundraising point of view, The Ocean Cleanup has already been a giant success. Since its formation in 2013, the nonprofit has raised more than $30 million, with donations from Salesforce founders Marc and Lynne Benioff, the Julius Baer Foundation, Royal DSM, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel, and an anonymous donor. Slat’s dogged determination to solve one of the world’s seemingly intractable problems led the United Nations to honor him as the youngest-ever recipient of its Champion of the Earth award. And TIME magazine included his cleanup design on its “The 25 Best Inventions of 2015” list.

But critics warn that though the system, which will require another $350 million to complete, sounds sexy, a more holistic solution to marine plastic pollution also involves reducing the consumption of single-use products, preventing plastics from entering waterways, and holding manufacturers accountable for its safe disposal.

Mary Crowley, founder of Project Kaisei, a Sausalito nonprofit focused on increasing public awareness of marine debris, salutes all efforts to clean up the oceans. “A healthy ocean is needed to keep our own and the planet’s health,” she said. But, as she observes, it remains to be proven whether The Ocean Cleanup’s system works. “It still has a way to go,” she said.

Crowley believes it makes more sense to use existing tugs, barges, working boats, and fishing vessels and hire fishermen to collect trash and create a healthier ocean. Her organization is distributing 40 to 50 satellite tags to the Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, cruise ships, and the team accompanying The Longest Swim’s star Ben Lecomte, who will traverse the Great Pacific Garbage Patch this summer, to tag discarded fishing gear and substantial pieces of debris. “It allows us to track debris distribution and do effective cleanup,” she said.

Replacing throwaway plastics with stainless steel, bamboo, and other durable alternatives and participating in cleanup activities are also part of the solution, Crowley observed. “We all need to be part of the zero-waste society,” she said.

Marcus Eriksen, cofounder of the Los Angeles-based 5 Gyres Institute, recently published a report that shows that many of the world’s top polluting rivers are based in Asia. “All the research shows, stop plastic at its source,” Eriksen said. In 2014, he collaborated with a group of scientists to produce the first global estimate of marine plastic pollution. The study found more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing over 250,000 tons, afloat in all the world’s oceans. “What’s out there, by far, is fishing gear — ghost nets, buoys, buckets—while only 8 percent is microplastics,” Eriksen said. Initially, he was surprised that the smallest pieces were less numerous than expected. “Then we realized, they’re becoming fragmented, ingested, pooped out, and buried as sediment,” he said. “The best analogy for understanding the current level of plastic pollution in the ocean is to compare it to smog.”

Eriksen, whose organization has partnered with the San Francisco Estuary Institute to better understand microplastic particle distribution in the bay, said he thinks The Ocean Cleanup should help pay for fisherman to grab discarded gear at sea. “I think we are steeped in the idea of one solution, but it’s a huge distraction,” he said.

Shilpi Chhotray, senior communications officer for the Break Free From Plastic movement, which demands reductions in single-use plastic and pushes for lasting solutions to this crisis, said the movement looks at all the points in the plastic pollution pipeline, not just ocean dumping. “Concerns about our carbon footprint are related to concerns about plastic pollution,” she said. “Whenever I see plastic now, all I see is oil.”

Chhotray encourages people to conduct audits to determine which brands end up in waterways. “Brand audits encourage people to put the responsibility for finding sustainable solutions on manufacturers, not just consumers,” she said. Noting that China stopped accepting waste from other countries in January 2018, and that Vietnam is following suit, Chhotray said this trend increases the pressure for people to figure out the waste stream at the municipal level. “It’s daunting, but we created plastic to begin with, so we need to figure out ways to rely on it less,” she said. “We need to ask, how do we make plastics the new smoking?”

For his part, Slat believes the sight of vessels returning from the gyre piled high with retrieved plastic will create powerful and motivational visuals. “If we bring the plastics back into port, people will take more care,” he said. The plan is to bring the first load of plastic back to shore by year’s end and sell it for recycling as durable products. “The selling point will be, this chair was made with plastic retrieved from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” he said. The Ocean Cleanup plans to use this income to build more systems that could then clean up the world’s other four gyres.

Arjen Tjallema, The Ocean Cleanup’s technology manager, said the project has two main objectives: “To show ourselves and the world it works, and to learn from it so we can design a second, bigger system,” he said. Noting that there is no other floating system like it in the world, Tjallema added, “It’s like walking on the moon, it’s a whole new thing.”

The project also plans to sample the seabed to investigate the impact of plastic microparticles. Noting that microplastics have been found in fish, in the blood of those who eat a lot of fish, and even in beer (though its effects on marine and human life remain unclear), Tjallema said, “We do know that nasty chemicals can stick to plastics and can be released in the blood.”

As for criticisms that The Ocean Cleanup should share its funding with other initiatives that seek to reduce and remove garbage, Tjallema said, “We try to focus on solving problems by inventing technology. We don’t believe we have enough power to change people’s behavior, so we bring the problem to the media, and we raise the money to do our project. We can’t tell our funders that we gave it away.”

He noted that The Ocean Cleanup hopes to be able to stop operating by 2040. “We’re not a company, we’re a project,” Tjallema said.

As for Slat, he’s staying focused on keeping his system as simple as possible as the projected deadline for its first operation nears. “It turns out it’s quite an art to keep something simple,” Slat said.

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