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Can this project clean up millions of tons of ocean plastic?

August 14, 2016 at 3:43 PM EDT
About 9 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year -- enough to fill a football stadium 23 miles high. But a project dubbed the Ocean Cleanup aims to eliminate it with a method that researchers are testing in the North Sea. The NewsHour Weekend’s Saskia de Melker has the story.

By Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman

SASKIA DE MELKER: 14 miles off the coast of the Netherlands, Boyan Slat is conducting an experiment to rid the world’s waters of plastic trash.

BOYAN SLAT: It’s a perfect day to install a barrier. We’ve been working on this for quite a few years, and actually having something physical in the ocean that you can see work

SASKIA DE MELKER: This floating barrier in the North Sea is the first test of this Dutch 22-year-old’s project that he calls “the Ocean Cleanup.”

BOYAN SLAT: Ultimately, I hope that we can get to a future where the oceans are clean again. I would say that I think within 10 years from now, we would already be really close to getting clean oceans again, and perhaps in 20, 30 years, I think the oceans can be like they were in perhaps the 1950s, before we were using plastic at this scale.

SASKIA DE MELKER: To call that goal ambitious would be an understatement. About 9 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year — from littering on beaches, fishing vessels disposing of old nets, and improper waste management.

That’s enough plastic to fill a football stadium and rise 23 miles in the air.
Scientists expect the amount of plastic trash in the oceans to double in the next decade as developing countries increasingly use plastic without adequate systems to recycle it. Not only do fish and marine animals get entangled in plastic, they eat it.

JULIA REISSER: “It’s very likely that that was bites from a fish with a hard beak or it could be even a baby turtle.”

SASKIA DE MELKER: Julia Reisser is the ocean clean up’s lead oceanographer. She says in water, plastic breaks down into microscopic pieces. So fish ingest plastic particles and may pass the harmful chemicals contained in them along the food chain. That’s why it’s critical to capture the large pieces of plastic before they break down.

JULIA REISSER: Quantifying the microplastics, the very tiny pieces, you probably are looking at the levels of plastic pollution from a few decades ago. So it’s like climate change: what we’re doing now we might feel in a few decades to come. So we see our operations as a way to intercept the big plastics before it becomes very small, tiny, millimeter-size plastics.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Rotating ocean currents suck plastic and other trash into concentrated areas– one of the largest is the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” located between hawaii and california. Scientists estimate that up to 170,000 tons of plastic accumulate here. Ocean garbage patches are vast but dispersed making it difficult to collect or even see the plastic.

Last year, “the ocean cleanup” deployed 30 vessels to map more than 1 million square miles of the pacific ocean and collect data on plastics. The team discovered more and larger pieces of plastic than expected.

JULIA REISSER: We got hundreds of times more plastic than marine life on the sea surface of these oceans.

SASKIA DEMELKER: There’s more plastic than fish?

JULIA REISSER: Yes, at least at the sea surface of this garbage patch, yes.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Boyan slat is focused on cleaning up this infamous patch. He was motivated six years ago, when he was on a family vacation.

BOYAN SLAT: I was 16-years-old, and I was diving in Greece, and then suddenly I realized I came across more plastic bags than fish. So I thought, well, somebody should do something about this. And then one day I realized that these currents between Hawaii and California are rotating, so the plastic doesn’t stay in one spot. I then asked myself, ‘Hey, wait a minute, why would you go through the oceans if the oceans can also move through you?’

SASKIA DE MELKER: In other words, Slat wondered if the same ocean currents that pushed the plastic deep into the ocean could be harnessed to clean it up. Slat came up with the idea to anchor a structure to the ocean floor similar to an oil rig — a passive barrier that could trap plastics.

BOYAN SLAT: “The oceanic currents moving around is not an obstacle, it’s a solution.”

SASKIA DE MELKER: When Slat, as a college freshman majoring in aerospace engineering, , promoted his idea in this “ted talk” four years ago, the video went viral. And with thousands of supporters, he decided to drop out of college to start the Ocean Clean Up.

SASKIA DE MELKER: What were the reactions to your idea at that time?

BOYAN SLAT: At first a lot of people told me it was not possible. I thought, well, I don’t know whether it’s possible, but the only way to find out is to actually try and go and do it.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Through crowdsourcing, he raised 2.2 Million dollars within 100 days and now has attracted a staff that includes dozens of scientists and engineers.Two years ago, Slat co-authored a 528-page report with nearly 100 scientists outlining how his vision could work and then began testing scale model barriers in wave pools. In June, he began testing out at sea.

The flexible barrier, as shown in this animation will float atop the ocean’s surface, its arms outstretched in a “v” shape. A screen will extend six-and-a-half feet below which the designers claim is deep enough to catch plastics, but shallow enough that marine life can swim underneath it. As plastic accumulates in the center of the barrier, it will be pulled up into a tower and stored until it can be transported back to shore and recycled.

SASKIA DE MELKER: In the North Sea the waves and currents are actually stronger than those out in the Pacific Ocean. That’s why the Ocean CleanUp team is testing the structural integrity of the floating barrier here first.

ALLARD VAN HOEKEN: “So we have the big yellow buoys those are the buoys that will hold the barrier.”

SASKIA DE MELKER: Allard Van Hoeken is an offshore engineer and the project’s chief operating officer. He’s overseeing the year long barrier test.

SASKIA DE MELKER: What do you expect from this test here?

ALLARD VAN HOEKEN: So now we’re going to see how the barrier will behave in a real offshore environment, real sea conditions. And also we’re going to do tests. So we’re going to do a capturing test with the fake plastic, it’s not real plastic, it’s made out of corn. And we’re going to release it here in front of the barrier and see how the barrier holds that.

SASKIA DE MELKER: After this test, van Hoeken’s team of engineers will set their sights on the Pacific Ocean, where they hope to deploy a full scale 62 mile barrier by 2020.

ALLARD VAN HOEKEN: To put a structure like this in the ocean far away from the coast, thousands of miles away in an area where humans have no control at all. To place it there, make it survive year after year. That’s really a lot of things together that have never been done before.

SASKIA DE MELKER: The ocean cleanup team has yet to secure funding for the full scale barrier, which it estimates will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. While most of Boyan Slat’s funding has come from private donations the Dutch government recently gave 550-thousand dollars for the prototype test. Sharon Dijksma is the Dutch Minister for the Environment.

SHARON DIJKSMA: We don’t have a pocket full of money waiting for Boyan after this, but i think the first step getting the prototype out and to be paid for that was probably the hardest step. When this is a success, and he is going to scale up, I think the investors will stand in line to assist him.

SASKIA DE MELKER: But Nick Mallos, director of the “trash free seas” program at the ocean conservancy in washington d.C. Is among the skeptics.

SASKIA DE MELKER: From what you know about the ocean cleanup plan, is it a feasible proposition?

NICK MALLOS: I think there are a lot of factors that are quite concerning. We’re talking about putting the largest manmade object ever known into an ocean in an environment that is one of the most, if not the most, dynamic and, and dangerous ecosystem on the planet. I think at the moment we believe the risk of catastrophe outweighs the potential benefit of plastics extraction.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Boyan Slat says that that risk can be mitigated. That’s why they’re testing extensively. Mallos says a more cost effective low risk approach is to slow plastic consumption and capture plastics in coastal areas.

NICK MALLOS: We believe very strongly that we should focus on stopping debris and plastics from entering waterways and the ocean at its source through beach cleanups and waterway and near shore clean ups and redesigning and minimizing the amount of waste that’s available to ever enter the system.

BOYAN SLAT: I think that prevention and cleanup is highly complementary. Because already there is a massive amount of plastic in the ocean, and it doesn’t go away by itself. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it, I suppose.