It’s difficult to quantify how much plastic is in the ocean. Studies estimate that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic float in our seas, and 8.5 million metric tonnes of plastic settle on the ocean floor each year.
If you’re like us, it’s hard to visualise the reality from numbers. So picture this: there’s a plastic island in the ocean that’s twice the size of Texas. It’s known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it’s estimated that just this area alone contains 1.8 trillion bits of plastic.
Images like this make you want to grab a net and scoop it all out. But of course it’s not that simple. Let’s take a look at the inventions and organisations that are committed to cleaning up our oceans.
The Ocean Clean Up Mission
The Ocean Clean Up is a not-for-profit organisation founded by Boyan Slat, a university dropout from the Netherlands. The 24 year old has invented a rubbish collection device for the sea. It’s a 2,000-foot-long, U-shaped tube that traps and extracts marine plastics on the ocean’s surface. Slat wants to deploy 60 of these devices worldwide to clean up marine plastic.
The Ocean Clean Up has received worldwide support, and has raised over $30 million to date. Slat predicts that a full-scale roll-out could clean 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years, and remove 90% of ocean plastic by 2040.
It sounds like a dream come true. So how has the mission performed so far?
It got off to a bumpy start at the end of 2018, when the device took to the sea for the first time. Although it succeeded in collecting plastic, it couldn’t retain it.
A year on, things are looking up. On 2nd October 2019, Slat tweeted: “Our ocean cleanup system is now finally catching plastic, from one-ton ghost nets to tiny microplastics!”
Slat emphasises that more needs to be done to stop plastic from entering the sea in the first place. But if his invention could be deployed worldwide, there’s a positive future ahead for a cleaner ocean. Watch this space.
Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski are the Australian inventors behind the Seabin. Boat builders by trade, the pair teamed up in 2013 to invent a device that could help tackle ocean pollution. In 2015, the Seabin was born.
There are 860 Seabins operating in harbours around the world to date. In one year, a Seabin can catch 90,000 shopping bags, 11,900 plastic bottles, over 35,000 disposable cups, and more. Seabins can also catch small plastic particles, which are particularly threatening to marine animals, and oil.
The Seabin Project has big ambitions. Ceglinski said: “[if] we can partner with a Veolia, Cleanaway, IQ Renew, or a Suez, this would be simply amazing and beneficial to everyone, with less plastics in our oceans”.
Whilst the Seabin waits for its big break, the global network has collected over 250,000 kilos of rubbish from the sea — the number goes up every day. The team is currently developing a new Seabin, which would be able to tackle an even greater volume of rubbish.
At this year’s Google Science Fair, 18 year old Fionn Ferreira took the top prize. Ferreira has discovered a way of extracting microplastics from water, which could be vital to preventing plastic from entering the ocean in the first place.
Ferreira combines vegetable oil and magnetite, a rock mineral, to create a ferrofluid. Don’t worry, we didn’t know what a ferrofluid is either. It’s a magnetic fluid, which was first discovered by NASA back in the 1960s, and is now found in our everyday devices, like music speakers.
The ferrofluid is added to water containing microplastic. The plastic becomes suspended within the ferrofluid, which is extracted from the water using a magnet. The ferrofluid successfully removed 88% of the plastic on average across the different types of plastic that Ferreira tested.
The ferrofluid is particularly effective at removing microplastics that end up in waterways via washing machines. This could be huge for reducing plastic pollution — just one washing machine cycle can release more than 700,000 plastic fibres into the environment.
Currently, European wastewater treatment centres don’t remove microplastics from water. If Ferreira can scale his discovery, we could finally be able to prevent microplastics from entering the sea in the first place.
Oh, and if Ferreira wasn’t impressive enough, he has won 12 previous science fairs, and has a minor planet named after him by MIT!
Prevention is better than cure
As promising as these inventions are, let’s not get too comfortable. We can’t rely on clean up methods to manage plastic pollution on our behalf.
The world needs to change its relationship with plastic, from global organisations to us as consumers. We need to big brands to switch to sustainable alternatives to plastic, and more of us to reduce our reliance on plastic in the first place.
The more we can move away from a throwaway culture, the more optimistic we can feel about a cleaner ocean.
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