About 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year (Jambeck et al., 2015). Part of this accumulates in 5 areas where currents converge: the gyres. At least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are currently in the oceans (Eriksen et al., 2014), a third of which is concentrated in the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Cózar et al., 2014).
This plastic pollution continues to do the following damage in the ages to come:
At least one million seabirds, and one-hundred thousand marine mammals die each year due to plastic pollution (Laist, 1997). The survival of at least 100+ species (Gall et al., 2015), including the Hawaiian Monk Seal and Loggerhead Turtle, could be jeopardized by plastic debris (Derraik, 2002). Plastic pollution is furthermore a carrier of invasive species, threatening native ecosystems (Barnes, 2005).
Globally, plastic pollution causes at least US $13 billion each year to industries that include fishing, shipping, tourism and the cleaning of coastlines (UNEP 2014). The US West Coast spends approximately US $500 million each year to clean up their beaches. The costs of removing debris from beaches is on average US $1,500, and up to US $25,000 per ton (APEC 2009).
Toxic chemicals (including PCBs and DDTs) are adsorbed by the plastic, increasing the concentration a million times (Mato et al., 2001). After entering the food chain, these persistent organic pollutants bio-accumulate in the food chain, resulting in an even higher concentration of pollutants inside fish (Tanaka et al., 2013), including ones consumed by humans. Health effects linked to these chemicals are: cancer, malformation and impaired reproductive ability (Takada, oceanhealthindex.org).
It is of course essential to first close the tap, to prevent any more plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place. However, this will not be a solution for the plastics already trapped in the currents of the gyres. The Ocean Cleanup works to develop world’s first feasible method to clean the gyres of plastic, using the currents to our advantage.
Why move through the oceans, if the oceans can move through you? An array of floating barriers first catches and concentrates the debris, enabling a platform to efficiently extract the plastic afterwards. We have now proven The Ocean Cleanup Array concept is likely a feasible and viable method to remove almost half the plastic from the North Pacific Garbage patch in 10 years, while being an estimated 7900x faster and 33x cheaper than conventional methods. The Ocean Cleanup now works towards a large-scale and operational pilot in 3-4 years’ time.
Prevention is an essential part of stopping plastic pollution, but will require radical changes in all levels of society. The Ocean Cleanup aims to assist with these efforts by stressing its importance, and by raising awareness about the problem and its solutions. Obviously, prevention is something we are all responsible for.
In the second phase of the project, The Ocean Cleanup plans to develop spin-offs of our passive collection technology for implementation in river deltas and other waterways that transport plastic to the oceans. This could provide a rapid reduction of the influx of new plastics into the oceans.