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Cleaning up a floating plastic garbage patch twice the size of Texas

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration Jameson Simpson

howitsdone

Nothing inspires eco-shame quite like the Pacific Ocean’s sprawling plastic garbage patch, which Greenpeace International estimates now stretches over a surface area roughly twice the size of Texas. Scientists aren’t yet clear on just how devastating such wide-scale pollution may prove to be in the long run, but the current numbers speak for themselves: Degraded plastic particles now outnumber zooplankton at a rate of six to one, and the 154,000 tons of plastic bits are changing the ocean ecosystem, perhaps irreversibly. That’s where 19-year-old Dutch aeronautical engineering student Boyan Slat comes in. Inspired by the disheartening number of plastic bags he saw while on a diving trip in Greece, Slat assembled a 100-person team to build and test several floating booms that will passively collect garbage without using the harmful nets that can entangle and drown marine life. He’s calling the project The Ocean Cleanup and estimates that, if all goes well, a fully operational pilot could be up and running in three to five years. Here’s how he’ll do it.

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1. Passive garbage collection is based on the idea that, instead of heading out to chase down trash, we should allow the ocean to do all the heavy lifting for us. To increase efficiency, Slat’s team recently studied currents, ocean depth, wind speed and plastic flow to determine the optimal locations to attach stationary collection platforms to the sea bed.

2. A V-shaped floating boom, with two 30-mile-long arms, will corral current-propelled trash toward this centralized platform. Buoyant plastics on the surface of the water will be gathered, while fish and other marine life will flow underneath the booms, keeping them safe from getting inadvertently swept up in the cleanup process.

3. Plastics will then be removed from the collection platforms and loaded onto boats for processing and recycling back on the mainland. Based on early projections, Slat’s stations will collect more than 7 million tons of waste from the ocean. Best of all, his plan will reportedly be 7,900 times faster and 33 times cheaper than traditional cleanup methods.

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