Millions of tons of tiny bits of plastic float in giant patches — or gyres — in oceans around the world. There are five large patches of plastic. One of them, the North Pacific Gyre, is roughly twice the size of the United States. All of them are a problem. These bits of plastic look like food to fish and birds and once consumed, end up killing these animals. But the plastic bits also contain chemicals, such as DDTs and PCBs, that once consumed by small sea creatures then enter the food chain to be consumed eventually by people. And because plastic doesn’t break down and dissolve, these gyres are going to be around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, even if we stopped polluting tomorrow.
What to do?
Young entrepreneur, Boyan Slat, has an idea. He wants to develop an array of floating devices designed to clean up the more than 7 million tons of plastic bits suspended in the top layer of the gyres — that’s the weight of 1,000 Eiffel Towers. The array would be made of manta-ray-shaped platforms connected in a zig-zagging pattern and affixed to the seabed. Ocean currents would drive plastic debris toward the platforms, which would be powered by the sun and wave action. Long, floating booms — not nets — would be used to sift plastics from the water with very little bycatch. Slat found that zooplankton, microscopic animals important to the bottom of the food chain, can be removed safely from the water using a centrifuge.
In a TED talk for TEDxDelft 2012, Slat detailed his plan. Not only would his plan clean up the ocean, save the lives of aquatic animals and reduce the amount of pollutants from entering the food chain but it would also save industry millions per year. Marine vessels are damaged every year from the garbage floating in the ocean, countries lose money when tourists no longer want to visit their polluted beaches. And Slat also thinks that he can make millions of dollars from the plastic he collects, by recycling it.
Credit: Erwin Zwart