The Most Ambitious Ocean Cleanup Plan Ever Is Officially Underway

Photo: The Ocean Cleanup

On Saturday, a boat set out from the coast of San Francisco to a crowd of eager onlookers. A voyage five years in the making, it signals the start of an ambitious plan to remove 90 percent of the plastic debris polluting our waterways.

It's the brainchild of The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that wants to collect ocean trash and bring it back to land to be recycled or reused into new products. Started by Dutch scientist Boyan Slat when he was only 18, the company has collected over $20 million in funding to build a system of 2,000-foot-long, U-shaped buoys and nets that can move with ocean tides to catch plastic floating on the surface of the water without trapping fish in the process.

It has its work cut out for it: There are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently littering our waterways, according to The Ocean Cleanup's website. And new research in the journal Nature shows that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest accumulation of visible plastics and microplastics in the world, located between Hawaii and California, is actually 16 times bigger than scientists previously thought—weighing in at an estimated 176 million pounds. This offshore dump will be the site of the Ocean Cleanup's first mission.

Once the first trash collector is tested off the coast of San Francisco, it will head out to the garbage patch, where it will eventually be joined by 60 other similar systems. If all goes according to plan, the nets will clean up 50 percent of the patch within five years. Along the way, sensors and satellite antennas will send data back to land to give scientists a better understanding of the trash clogging our waterways.

The Ocean Collective

While using what is essentially a giant net to trap the trash in our ocean may sound too simplistic, the device has gone through many design iterations to get to where it is today: a machine that can move in tandem with the tides to stop debris from escaping underneath. It's a historic moment considering nobody else has ever attempted to clean up our waterways on such a large scale.

But Slat thinks that aiming big is the best way to forge real change. "I think very often problems are so big, people approach problems from the bottom up: 'If only I do this little bit, then hopefully there will be some sort of snowball effect that will be bigger and bigger,'" he told Fast Company. "I'm much more in favor of the top-down approach to problem-solving. Really ask, if the problem is this big, how do you get to 100 percent? Then knowing what it takes to get to 100 percent, work your way back."

While exciting, this innovation won't single-handedly solve our trash problem. Cleaning our oceans is one thing, but keeping them clean will require all of us to produce less plastic waste in the first place. You can start by recycling properly, upcycling old goods, and avoiding unnecessary plastics whenever you can.

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