How technology is being used to address the problem of waste in the ocean

In Kingston Harbour, Jamaica, there was a stack of plastic bottles behind the interceptor barrier for the Ocean Clean-up

Boyan Slat, a Dutch businessman, describes his efforts to address the issue of ocean plastic pollution as a "long and painful journey.".

The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit environmental organization founded by a 28-year-old man, has spent nearly ten years researching ways to remove plastic waste from the Pacific Ocean.

It has been more difficult than he ever anticipated, he told BBC News.

It turns out that the planet is pretty large, said Boyan.

The first few years were really about trying to understand the issue because there are approximately 1,000 rivers and five ocean garbage patches that need to be addressed. ".

The North Pacific Ocean is home to "the Great Pacific Garbage Patch," the largest collection of accumulated ocean plastic in the world.

It has been one of The Ocean Cleanup team's main targets because it has a significant accumulation of plastic waste, ranging from large fishing nets to flake-sized microplastics.

The Ocean Cleanup employs a lengthy, u-shaped barrier that boats pull through accumulations of trash. In an effort to protect marine life, it moves slowly.

Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered cameras are used to constantly scan the ocean's surface for plastic and calibrate the team's computer models, which aids in determining which regions of the Pacific to target.

There are some regions of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that have a very high density of plastic and other regions that are essentially empty, he said.

Naturally, we can be much more productive in our clean-up operation if we are consistently cleaning up inside those hotspots. ".

The second of its kind created by the company, the 800-metre-long (2,600-foot) system's plastic collection is periodically taken to land and emptied for recycling.

The Ocean Cleanup crew sorts through plastic on a ship deck after an extraction
After an extraction, the Ocean Cleanup team sorts through plastic on a ship's deck.

Nearly 200,000 kilograms (440,000 lbs) of ocean plastic have been removed, according to Boyan, using the system so far.

The world's largest patch of plastic trash contains 100 million kilograms of plastic, so this represents just 0.2 percent of that amount. Nevertheless, he insisted that it was still worthwhile because "everything big starts small.".

Using its current system, the team estimates that it will have collected 1% of the patch by the end of this year; however, they are expanding their operations in an effort to clean up patches more quickly.

To be used in the summer, System 3 will be a 2 point 4 km (1 point 49 mi) long enormous barrier.

By deploying ten of these larger systems in the near future, The Ocean Cleanup hopes to remove up to 80% of the plastic waste in the North Pacific by the end of the decade.

Mock-up image comparing the size of its new, larger floating barrier to its current 800m system
Three times as large as its current system, the Ocean Cleanup is currently developing a new one.

80 percent of the world's ocean plastic pollution, according to research done by the company in 2021, comes from about 1,000 of the world's rivers.

In reality, Boyan claimed, "the rivers are the arteries that transport trash from land to sea.". So when it rains, plastic from the streets eventually makes its way into creeks, rivers, and the ocean. ".

According to him, stopping plastic can be made even more challenging by rivers' swift flow.

"In rivers, you really only have one shot at catching the plastic; it just flows by, and if you don't catch it, it will definitely end up in the ocean," he said.

Rubbish accumulates behind the barrier of an Interceptor system in Ballona Creek, California
At an Interceptor system in Ballona Creek, California, trash gathers behind the barrier.

In an effort to stop trash from entering the ocean, The Ocean Cleanup uses its "Interceptor" solutions to intercept trash in rivers.

According to variables like the river's width, depth, flow rate, and type of debris—again determined using AI-powered cameras—the technology behind these varies.

A conveyor belt is typically used in deployments to remove trash from the water.

Boyan stated, "We are intercepting plastic in 11 rivers around the world, but ultimately aim to scale this to all 1,000 rivers in the world with the highest levels of pollution. ".

Plastic rubbish gathered by an Interceptor moving along a conveyor belt
Moving along the conveyor belt of an Interceptor is trash that has been filtered from the Klang River in Selangor, Malaysia.

In 2018, National Oceanography Centre Prof. Richard Lampitt told BBC News that he thought using boats to transport nets and plastic from ocean garbage patches to ports might have a high carbon cost.

He claims that he is still skeptical of this after several years, but he is much more optimistic about focusing on river trash.

"The costs to the environment are much, much lower," he said. "You don't need to travel 1,500 kilometers to get the items. ".

However, pointing out the dangers that microplastics pose to the core of the marine ecosystem, Prof. Lampitt stated that, in his opinion, preventing the entry of plastic into the ocean should be the priority rather than cleaning up the plastic that already exists in our oceans.

"I cannot imagine any way that you can remove these from the natural environment from the ocean without causing massive damage to the food webs, and of course it takes an awful lot of energy to do it," he said.

Boyan Slat stands on a beach covered in plastic bottles and items in Honduras
Boyan expressed his hope that The Ocean Cleanup wouldn't be necessary in the future.

Boyan has high hopes for the future, despite the fact that tackling the issue of marine pollution around the world is difficult and dependent on lessening plastic production and consumption overall.

In the not-too-distant future, he continued, "I truly believe that with these technologies to clean up the legacy pollution in the ocean and to intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the oceans, we will actually be able to put ourselves out of business.".

The entire report is available to view on Click.

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