These Plastic-Eating Machines Will Filter Our Junk From the Ocean

The Ocean Cleanup revealed how their ocean-plastic-removal machine will actually work.

|
May 12 2017, 11:00am

Image: http://www.noaa.gov/

You probably remember hearing about The Ocean Cleanup when it was first announced: 19-year-old Boyan Slat developed a plan to rid the oceans of plastic much faster and much cheaper than anyone else.

This directly targeted the growing, almost incomprehensible problem of plastic in our oceans. As a result of our disposal of plastic waste into the ocean, five giant concentrated areas of garbage have formed across the world, the largest called the The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Slat decided that the easiest way to fix this mess was to let the ocean clean itself by allowing the currents to push the plastic into the machine, instead of humans going out to look for plastic ourselves.

What began as a $2 million startup in 2013 developed into a foundation that has raised 21.7 million dollars since November 2016 and 31.5 million dollars since their origin in 2013. The funds have allowed them to deploy their pilot technology at the end of 2017 and begin their 10 year mission to remove half of the plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2020.

Read More: Ocean Currents Are Carrying Our Plastic Garbage to the Arctic

In yesterday's announcement, Slat revealed that the machine in development for the past four years would be getting a new look at an event held in Werkspoorkathedraal in Utrecht, The Netherlands, which Motherboard was able to watch via YouTube livestream.

Thanks to the new discoveries he and his scientists made, and the updates to The Ocean Cleanup machine, they now plan on removing 50 percent of the plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years, with the first machine set to launch within the next 12 months.

Slat's plan is not foolproof. Some scientists have pointed out that land-based interventions would work more effectively than cleaning up in the sea itself. And others say the funding would be better used to treat the problem at its source: waste management.

Even so, The Ocean Cleanup created a graph of how the amount of plastic has increased over the past 50 years and how it will continue to rapidly increase without their machine in comparison to how their machine will impact the plastic levels:

Image: TheOceanCleanup/YouTube

They also created a map of what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will look like in 2030 if it's left alone versus what it will look like with the help of The Ocean Cleanup:

Image: TheOceanCleanup/YouTube

How are they going to accomplish this? In Slat's words: "To catch the plastic, act like the plastic."

His barrier-like machine catches plastic because it moves slower than plastic does. Now, he has decided to turn his original stationary machine into a moving one. Instead of being fixed to the seabed, the barrier will drift in the ocean, slowed down by an anchor floating a few hundred meters beneath it. This will allow the machine to withstand much stormier conditions with much less effort, and to get pushed into the most concentrated areas of plastic.

Slat also announced that instead of creating one massive machine, they will create a fleet of smaller machines to rotate around, collecting more plastic. The currents will eventually push all of the machines into one general area where they can swirl around as they all collect plastic.

Having many machines will greatly increase The Ocean Cleanup's efficiency and make it much easier to raise the several hundred million dollars needed to complete the project.

If The Ocean Cleanup's innovation works, it could make unprecedented strides in saving our oceans and protecting the sea life and the planet. There's still hope that our oceans won't end up with more plastic than fish.

Subscribe to Science Solved It , Motherboard's new show about the greatest mysteries that were solved by science.