Space & Innovation

First Ocean Plastic Cleaning Barrier Gets Tested

A prototype system for capturing ocean plastic is being deployed in the North Sea.

A new ocean cleanup crew is gearing up, and not a moment too soon. Starting this week, a Dutch foundation, Ocean Cleanup, will begin testing the seaworthiness of its first prototype.

Ultimately, the idea is to create a miles-long floating barrier that will passively catch plastic debris, while allowing marine life to pass underneath.

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The Ocean Cleanup foundation was started in 2014 by Boyan Slat, now the CEO, when he was 17 years old. Since then, the group crowdfunded a feasibility study and has been working with the Dutch government and the marine construction company Royal Boskalis Westminster on a prototype barrier nearly 330 feet long made of screens rather than the originally proposed nets.

Once installed, the prototype segment will float off the coast of the The Netherlands for a year, according to the foundation. For now, the testing is to see if the barrier can withstand extreme weather at sea. Any ocean cleaning technology destined for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has to be able to survive severe storms.

Slat said in a press release that he thinks there's a 30 percent chance the prototype could break. If the testing is successful, the foundation plans to deploy a pilot system later next year. By their estimates, a 62-mile-long barrier installation could capture half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within 10 years.

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Ever since I first learned about ocean gyres collecting our trash like toilets that never flush, I've been wishing for a large-scale cleanup. The plastic pollution is insidious, though, and other proposed solutions struck me as being too inconsequential, too expensive, too dangerous to marine life.

Ocean plastic has challenged my optimism about technological advancements. It's easy to feel powerless in the face of such a huge environmental mess. But if there's a ray of hope here, it's Boyan Slat. He's not giving up, and neither should we.

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