Dutch ‘boy’ mopping the seas clean of plastic

Automologist MAC follows the story of one 'small' boy with one big mission. Here at Automology, we are not exactly hemp-trouser-w...

Automologist MAC follows the story of one 'small' boy with one big mission.

Here at Automology, we are not exactly hemp-trouser-wearing eco-warriors, but we are most definitely environmentally sensitive. Our chief sponsor, the X-1R Corporation, is in fact known for producing environmentally sensitive products that reduce fuel consumption and vehicle emissions.

I personally have been following the story of a young Dutch ‘boy’ who seems to have come up with a solution to rid the world’s oceans of the millions of tonnes of waste plastic that has accumulated in them over the years. This ‘boy’ is Boyan Slat, a twenty-year-old who has devoted his teenage years almost obsessively to finding a way to rid the world’s oceans of plastic, and now it looks like the first boom is about to be deployed.

To his credit, in a recent interview, Boyan said, "I don't understand why 'obsessive' has a negative connotation, I'm an obsessive and I like it, I get an idea and I stick to it."

Think about how many times you've walked along the beach and been disgusted by the mounds of plastic. There is an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic entering the world’s oceans every year and it is estimated that by the year 2050, the world's oceans will have as much plastic as fish, according to an ocean advocacy group called Ocean Conservancy whose work was quoted at the recent Davos World Economic Forum.

The idea came to Boyan at the age of 16 when diving in Greece. "I saw more plastic bags than fish," said Slat. He was shocked, and even more shocked that there was no apparent solution. "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."

In the past 30 to 40 years, the earth’s oceans have been polluted with millions of tonnes of plastic. Global production of plastic now is at 288 million tonnes per year, an estimated 10% of which will end up in the ocean eventually; most originate from land-based sources. Litter – like that plastic straw, cup lid or cigarette butt you threw onto the road - gets swept into drains, and makes its way into rivers and then into the sea. Currents then carry the plastic to one of the five gyres, which are vortexes of trash in the middle of major oceans. The most notorious one is the gigantic Pacific Garbage Patch, halfway between Hawaii and California.

The five Ocean Gyres
Plastic waste is highly concentrated here, leading to people often describing it as a plastic soup. The 'soup' covers an area twice the size of Texas. To make matters worse, the plastic does not remain in one spot. The rotating vortex of plastic make clean-up an almost insurmountable challenge.

"Most people have this image of an island of trash that you can almost walk on, but that's not what it's like," says Slat. "It stretches for millions of square kilometres - if you went there to try and clean up by ship it would take thousands of years." That would not only require a lot of energy and money - the nets could accidentally catch large sealife while dragging the ocean for plastic.

Leaving the trash in the seas is not an option either. Over time, the plastic breaks into smaller and smaller fragments and is ingested by marine life. Marine turtles are thought to be some of the biggest victims as they mistake plastic bags for one of their primary foods - jellyfish.

But a recent study of sea-going albatrosses found alarming amounts of plastic items within their carcasses. Albatrosses in particular are vulnerable because they feed on flying fish eggs, which stick to floating objects. The plastics may not directly kill the birds but can act as a sponge, soaking up chemicals in the water; we know birds and fish are eating those pieces of chemical-infused plastics, so the question is how does that transfer up the food chain and what is the impact?

A two-year pilot project off the coast of Tsushima island in Japan is set to begin. The area collects about one cubic metre of pollution per person from its beaches. The pilot system consists of a static platform with 2000-metre booms, through which wind and ocean currents travel and deposit debris. It will be the longest floating structure ever to be released in the ocean.

The island will evaluate whether the collected refuse can be used as an alternative energy source over the test period.

Slat started this project in 2012, back when he was just a tender age of 17. The budding environmentalist first presented his ambitious idea at a TEDx talk in the Netherlands.

Despite the usual slew of critics writing off novel ideas, Slat and his team, comprising 70 scientists and engineers, put together a 530-page feasibility report. It concluded that the concept “is indeed likely a feasible and viable ocean clean-up technique”. Slat claimed that their report has also been peer-reviewed by other experts.

If the idea works, then after five years of staggered deployments increasing in scale, the company will deploy a 100km-long system to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We wish you well young man.


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