Every year, millions of pounds of trash get dumped into the Pacific Ocean, which together form large islands of waste known collectively as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The pollutants are too numerous to remove individually, but a few years ago the Dutch wunderkind Boyan Slat, who was only 21 at the time, started promoting the idea of using giant floating barriers to passively clean up the ocean using the natural movement of ocean currents.
The Ocean Cleanup Array. Pictured is the center of the V, including the collection station. (Erwin Zwart / The Ocean Cleanup)
Slat has since founded the Ocean Cleanup Project to execute the largest ocean cleanup in history.
The project so far has a 6,500-foot-long prototype of the barriers, which is scheduled for deployment in May 2016 near Tsushima, a Japanese island off the coast of South Korea. Slat plans to eventually expand the project all over the Pacific beginning in 2020 with a 62-mile-long cleanup barrier.
In July it launched a three-week reconnaissance mission with a fleet of 30 ships to survey the swirling islands of garbage found across the ocean and collect samples along the way, reportedly the largest ocean expedition in history.
The vessels deployed surface trawlers to gather plastic samples and high altitude aerial balloons to detect plastics that were hard to find.
“With every trawl we completed, thousands of miles from land, we just found lots and lots of plastic,” said Julia Reisser, lead oceanographer at The Ocean Cleanup, in a statement.
On Aug. 23, the first group of vessels arrived at the San Francisco harbor, and although the samples haven’t been fully analyzed yet, the news wasn’t good.
“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. It really is a ticking time bomb,” Slat said in the statement.
Simplified map showing 50 transects between Hawaii and California, illustrating the scale of the Mega Expedition research area (3.5 million km2). (Erwin Zwart / The Ocean Cleanup)
Map showing the 50 transects the Mega Expedition will perform based on routing information provided by the skippers before they left port. (Lys-Anne Sirks / The Ocean Cleanup)
Collection of ‘manta trawls,’ which are being deployed by all Mega Expedition vessels to study the spatial distribution of plastic, Honolulu, Hawaii, July 27, 2015. (Stella Diamant / The Ocean Cleanup)
Mega Expedition mothership R/V Ocean Starr deploying the two 6 meter-wide ‘mega nets,’ two ‘manta trawls,’ and its survey balloon with camera at the center of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Aug. 4, 2015. (Skyframes / The Ocean Cleanup)
Underwater photo of deployed ‘manta trawl’ by Mega Expedition volunteer vessel Between The Sheets, at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, August 2015. (Crew aboard Between The Sheets/The Ocean Cleanup)
‘Codends’ filled with plastic particles after trawling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for one hour, at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, August 2015. (Crew aboard ExtremeH20/The Ocean Cleanup)
Ocean Cleanup CEO and founder Boyan Slat and Julia Reisser, lead oceanographer, examining samples of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, aboard Mega Expedition mothership R/V Ocean Starr, at Pier 30/32, San Francisco, Aug. 23, 2015. (KJB/The Ocean Cleanup)