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A 25-Year-Old May Have Figured Out How To Clean Up The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has grown quite famous in regards to the climate change conversation that the world is constantly taking part in. First discovered 20 years ago, the patch has now grown to be anywhere between the size of Texas to the size of Russia, based on how spread across the Pacific it is on a given day. Regardless, it’s a giant pile of plastic and garbage that has been excreting micro-plastics and pollutants into the ocean for two decades now, with no signs of improvement, until now. 

Boyan Slat is a 25 year old conservationist who 6 years ago, when he was just 19 years old, began developing a device that would clean up the garbage patch plaguing the Pacific once and for all. Slat is in an organization known as The Ocean Cleanup, who’s primary mission is to clean up our planet’s oceans, starting with the garbage patch. 

The U-shaped device looks like a bunch of buoys strung up together from an aerial view, and it’s meant to fold like a giant arm as a means of retaining plastic and moving it. On paper, the device seems simple enough to make and use, however, there’s a reason it took 6 years to fully develop and perfect. Originally the design hit a lot of bumps in the road during its initial testing. The initial reports stated that the system had difficulties retaining the plastic, causing it to leak out into different parts of the ocean. 

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Boyan Slat

Additionally, the flotation devices that formed the bendable “arm” would suffer from some structural failures, causing the “arm” to disconnect from the entire system. These failures all continued to occur throughout the past 6 years, but each time the team from Ocean Cleanup made improvements that slowly but surely made the device completely functional. So much so that earlier this month the group was able to harvest 60 full bags of plastic debris from the patch and return it back to land; at their base in Vancouver. 

 

“We actually have the first plastic back on land. It fills me with a lot of pride and joy. [Even though] It’s absolute garbage, this stuff has been in the ocean likely for decades,” Slat said at a press conference on Thursday. 

The intention is to not only clean up the entire patch, but also recycle the plastic that’s collected. The Ocean Cleanup states as part of their mission that they’d want to turn the plastic into some kind of marketable product so the plastic doesn’t just end up back in the ocean somehow. The team does have an idea in mind as to what this product will be but for now they’re keeping that a secret; what we do know is that they intend to start selling it by September 2020.

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The Ocean Cleanup states that the 60 bags that they collected is just step 1 of the massive project, and they intend on using their device to bring half of the patch back to land to be recycled within the next five years. 

“You might wonder: It’s 20 years ago that this patch was discovered. Why hasn’t anyone cleaned this yet? Well, it turns out that it’s actually pretty difficult. It’s one of the roughest environments on the face of the planet,”  Slat said.

Additionally, the device that they used still needs to be improved upon, along with further funding for the project. If they really want to have a shot at cleaning the ocean of this 20 year old patch of garbage, they need to make sure their device is at its fullest scale and fully operational, which would mean ensuring the device itself can spend long periods of time travelling in the ocean without any wear or tear.

Funding has become a major issue as well, as a majority of the money that was invested into The Ocean Cleanup has been spent throughout the past six years. This is the reason the company plans to make a marketable product out of the plastic, so this way they can further fund this project on its own; hopefully the device will begin to pay for itself with the money raised. For now though, Slat and his team couldn’t be more proud of this monumental step towards a plastic free ocean.