Think about how much plastic you encounter in a single day. It’s almost unfathomable: over a million plastic bottles are bought in the world each minute. Once these plastics are made, they can take over 100 years to degrade on their own, and usually make hell for plants and wildlife in the process. Every year, over 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans.
Ocean currents concentrate plastic in five areas in the world: the subtropical gyres, also known as the world’s “ocean garbage patches”. Once in these patches, the plastic will not go away by itself. The challenge of cleaning up the gyres is the plastic pollution spreads across millions of square kilometers and travels in all directions. However, a bold new program started by a Dutch inventor may just have the solution.
Boyan Slat started the idea behind The Ocean Cleanup Project at just 16 years old when SCUBA diving in Greece, and was startled at the sheer amount of plastic. In 2013, after he produced a TED Talk on a potential solution to plastic waste in our oceans, he was able to crowdfund support and officially begin the project.
“The plastic pollution problem has always been portrayed as something insolvable. The story has always been ‘OK, we can’t clean it up – the best we can do is not make it worse’. To me that’s a very uninspiring message,” said Mr Slat.
The clean-up contraption consists of 40 foot pipes that are fitted together to form a long, snaking tube. Filled with air, they float on the ocean’s surface in an arc, and have nylon screens hanging down below forming a giant floating dustpan to catch the plastic rubbish that gathers together when moved by the currents.
The organization’s models indicate that a full-scale system roll-out could clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within 5 years. But it could be futile if nothing is done about the sheer amount of plastic waste we produce each year. We need to see action from our governments worldwide, in order to mandate better biodegradable materials in everyday items. We also need to chip in during everyday life: skip the bottled water and grab a reusable canteen. Help organize or attend a clean up of a local river, lake, or forest.
We have everything to lose should we do nothing, and everything to gain if we do something. This week, think about what you can do.