World / Science & Health

Inventor Boyan Slat's mission: Shrink Great Pacific Garbage patch 90% by 2040

As marine plastic pollutes the seas, Dutch entrepreneur has high hopes for U-shaped ocean 'rake'

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Boyan Slat, 25, is an ambitious social entrepreneur. His goal: Reduce 90 percent of an estimated 80 million kg of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean, covering an area more than three times the size of France, by 2040. And do it with a technology he likens to raking leaves.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it’s called, along with marine plastic that fragments into toxic microplastics that contaminate sea life, have been hot topics at G20 and G7 meetings over the past few years, and the efforts of Slat and his nonprofit organization, The Ocean Cleanup, have garnered much international attention.

The organization has developed a U-shaped system consisting of a 600-meter floating pipe and a detached polyester screen that can collect plastic debris up to 3 meters deep and tow it to the garbage patch, the largest accumulation zone for plastic in the world.

The “leaves” (floating waste) are raked into a large pile that is then collected. It needs to operate in high winds and storms and be able to automatically retain the collected garbage.

But after it was first deployed in September 2018, there was a problem.

“Sometimes our system went faster than the plastic speed and sometimes it went slower. This caused the plastic to enter the collection system and spill out,” Slat said in an interview.

The solution? Attach a parachute.

“The winning concept is the slow-down approach, in which we use a parachute anchor to slow down the system as much as possible, allowing the natural winds and waves to push the plastic into the system,” he said in a blog earlier this month.

Whether the modified system will end up being 100 percent effective in collecting and retaining the plastic garbage in the patch remains to be seen. But Slat still is hopeful of meeting his goal — a 90 percent reduction of the patch by 2040.

“To solve the problem of marine plastic waste, you need to do two things. You need to clean up the legacy (of plastic waste) and you need to close the tap. Right now, we at Ocean Cleanup are focused on the legacy aspect,” he says.

“The legacy, the waste, is mostly in international waters that are sort of in no man’s land and thus considered to be no one nation’s problem. So far, it’s been mostly the private sector that has shown an interest in our activities,” Slat added.

Japan, he said, was among the top countries from which The Ocean Cleanup received support in the form of donations from both corporations and individuals.

Last year, the NGO published a report that summarized its research on small samples taken from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Some 386 plastic items had recognizable words or sentences in nine different languages. Of these, one-third, or 115 objects, had Japanese inscriptions and another third (113 objects) had Chinese inscriptions. Fourteen of the items had labels identifying them as having been made in Japan.

“Quite a high percentage of the garbage had Japanese language characters written on it. My guess is that it’s due to a combination of the fact that Japan is, of course, very active in terms of its fisheries industry, and we found a lot of fishing-related debris in the patch as well,” the Dutch inventor said.

At the G20 summit in Osaka in June, Japan announced a goal of reducing additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050 by reusing and recycling waste and developing new technologies.

Worldwide, 27 countries (though not Japan) ban or greatly restrict single-use plastics, and there have been calls among environmentalist groups for an international, legally binding treaty under the United Nations to control such plastics.

Slat said his group, founded in the Netherlands in 2013, has received inquiries on managing plastic waste from various governments. For the moment, however, he is concentrating on the plastic that is already polluting the ocean.

“In the future, we may look at other ways we can help the other side of the equation, that is, from helping prevent plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place. But right now, that’s premature for us as we’re focused on cleaning up what is already out there.”

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