Posted June 5, 2015

Japanese island selected for plastic removal test

Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch company that aims to rid the world's oceans of the infamous 'plastic soup,' aka 'garbage patches' will test its plastic removal technology next year in the vicinity of the Japanese island of Tsushima.

Boyan Slat, the young (20) founder of Ocean Cleanup, announced this recently at a conference in Seoul, South Korea. Ocean Cleanup intends to use installations with long outstretched floating arms that catch plastic from the ocean current. Specially designed conveyor belts then haul the plastic out of the water so it can be recycled in some way. Slat believes half of the plastic objects larger than 1 cm can be retrieved in 10 years, and he hopes a large scale cleanup can pay for itself by selling re-usable plastic.

According to Wikipedia, the Pacific Garbage Patch was predicted in 1988 and discovered in 1999. Plastic that floats out to sea ends up in a couple of large, slow, circular currents (the Atlantic and Indian Ocean have them too), never to get out again. Over time plastic gets brittle so it breaks up into ever smaller pieces and enters the food chain via birds, fish and even plankton. Plastic surfaces absorb other pollutants like pcb's, making the problem worse.

So far nobody thought anything could be done about this (apart from maybe stopping the supply by littering a little less on land). But Dutch student Boyan Slat decided there's no such thing as a hopeless case. He started lecturing on the topic, did a crowdfunding round, started designing and hiring and now leads an organization with about 2 million dollars in funding and a technology to test.

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So why Tsushima? Three reasons, says Slat. 'One: the currents are comparable to what we find in the Pacific. Two: the local government wanted to host this experiment very badly. And three, every year about 30,000 cubic meters of plastic washes ashore on Tsushima. So we can do some real work there.'

At Tsushima a 1:50 scale model will be tested. The armlike barriers that collect the plastic to a central area will be 2 km in length whereas the full version will have arms 100 km long. 'We will test the structural integrity, investigate how it degrades by ultraviolet radiation from the Sun and by microscopic sea life, and we will look at the efficiency in what it is supposed to do: collect plastic garbage. We don't want plastic to jump over the barrier or to escape underneath.' The barriers don't move; they are oriented in such a way that the water flows in like it enters a funnel and passes underneath, taking all sea life along, while floating plastic gets caught.

Slat now leads an organization of almost 90 staff and volunteers, and he's hiring. 'One thing we need badly is engineers. Mechanical engineers, offshore engineers. A CTO position (operational manager) is open as well. I want open minded people, who think out of the box and become inspired by problems instead of getting discouraged. You're certain to meet some boundaries because we're pushing them all the time, working long days under high pressure. If you get energized by that, I'd like to have you on board.'

Slat is also still looking for money. 'The cleanup itself should take about 40 million dollars a year during ten years. My idea is governments should be involved, since what we do helps prevent health problems. Also, the problem was caused by everybody so everybody should pay up.' Slat expects to announce some funding news this month. We'll keep you posted.

About Herbert Blankesteijn

Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.