A Dutch start-up proposes creating a system of floating barriers to clean the world's oceans from plastic garbage

Pacific's floating garbage patch studied ahead of clean-up

Engineers developing a technology that could possibly remove giant amounts of garbage from the world’s oceans have returned from a month-long mapping expedition around a massive garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.

The Ocean Cleanup team, founded by 21-year old Dutch aerospace engineer Boyan Slat, proposes a system of floating barriers several kilometres in length that would gather the plastic waste with the help of the ocean’s natural movements.

In preparations for the deployment of the first large-scale test next year, the team has now focused on a huge island of plastic waste swirling in the middle of the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Located near Hawaii, approximately halfway between Japan and the USA, the garbage island is held together by strong ocean currents of the so called convergence zone.

Garbage parts of various sizes, some as small as a grain of sand, make up the island, but very large pieces such as ghost nets and Japanese tsunami debris have also been found. Researchers say the amount of plastic in the area is one hundred times larger than the amount of biological life.

“The vast majority of the plastic in the garbage patch is currently locked up in large pieces of debris, but UV light is breaking it down into much more dangerous microplastics, vastly increasing the amount of microplastics over the next few decades if we don’t clean it up,” said the Ocean Cleanup’s CEO and founder Boyan Slat. “It really is a ticking time bomb.”

A research fleet of 30 vessels collected samples and created maps of the garbage patch using aerial balloons and trawling equipment.

"We did three types of surveys in 80 locations, and now we are working on completing an up-to-date estimate of the size of the patch, making a chart of hot spots and publishing our findings by mid-2016," explained oceanographer Julia Reisser.

The Ocean Cleanup project is financially backed by Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff.

The company says on its website that while trying to remove all the garbage from the world’s oceans using boats and nets would destroy marine life, their floating barriers will only affect the plastic matter which is lighter than water and therefore floating on the surface.

The barriers would be anchored to the ocean floor and easy to scale to clean millions of square kilometres without needing to be moved at all, the firm said.

Next year, the Ocean Cleanup wants to deploy a 2,000-metre long technology demonstrator to collect debris in Japanese coastal waters. 

The large scale clean-up of the Pacific garbage patch could commence in 2020.

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