December 9, 2019
Our Earth is an incredible planet, but it can only do so much. Earth has the ability to provide us with clean water, oxygen, food, and a place to call home, and what do we do with all of this? We take advantage of our Earth, and this will soon be the reason for our extinction. If you’ve walked a beach lately, you’ve seen plastic littering the coast. This littering that is formed on the coasts and beaches of our planet is called ocean pollution. A prime example of ocean pollution is the Pacific Gyre, also known as the “Pacific Garbage Patch.” The Pacific Garbage Patch is most commonly known for its excessive debris essentially caused by humans. The only way to reverse this excessive debris of ocean pollution is for humans to reverse what we have caused. A young man named Boyan Slat is attempting to do just that. Boyan Slat, born in the Netherlands, was a sixteen-year-old boy at the time that he realized that change needed to occur in our oceans, and fast. Slat was scuba diving in Greece when he noticed that there happened to be “more plastic than fish” in the ocean waters.1 What most people don’t know is that pollution has been a major problem for decades, and no one has really made an effort to solve this issue until now.
Ocean pollution has been affecting our oceans for over fifty years. Floating plastic fragments have been reported in the Northern Hemisphere sub-tropical gyres since the early 1970’s in the North Atlantic and North Pacific.2 The pollution in our oceans consists of many different things, not just plastic bags, water bottles, and straws. A study by scientists working with the organization Ocean Cleanup found that 92% of the two trillion pieces of pollution, just in the Pacific Gyre, are large fragments and objects such as toothbrushes, bottles, umbrella handles, toy guns, jerricans, laundry baskets, and what sailors call “ghost nets.”3 According to the United Nations, normally each square km of ocean carries 13,000 pieces of debris in their waters, but per square km, the Pacific Gyre carries 330,000 pieces of debris, which is over 25 times more than any other ocean.4 If you can’t recall a time when you saw plastic covering the oceans, that is just as common as seeing an abundance of debris. This is because “most of the plastics in the ocean are too small for the average person to even notice.” These tiny pieces of plastic on our coasts and oceans are called microplastics. These microplastics have gotten so small that they are starting to enter the oceans food webs, causing animals to consume these microplastics, which eventually ends up on our dinner plates. How do microplastics form? There are two types of microplastics. The first form of microplastics are microbeads, which are “small pieces of plastic that were used in face wash and toothpaste until 2015.” The other form of a microplastic is a microfiber, which are “small strands from synthetic clothing, fish nets, carpets, wet wipes, and cigarette butts.” Microfibers are “so small that they can pass through washing machine filters, travel through the water cycle, and end up in oceans where they get tangled in the guts of the organisms that eat them.”5
On August 3, 1997, a sailer by the name of Capt. Moore was returning to his home in Southern California from a sailing race in Hawaii when he decided to take the long route home. The route that he decided to take, which he had never taken before, happened to pass through the North Pacific Gyre. What Capt. Moore would discover would change our world forever. His discoveries started the discussion of ocean pollution and how it all ended up there. “What he discovered were miles upon miles of water bottles, plastic tarpaulins, dolls and furniture that have been collecting there for as long as 60 years.” Capt. Moore soon discovered that the “billions of tiny shards of the synthetic material floating just below the surface of the water, is estimated to span an area one and a half times the size of the continental United States.”6 This discovery of the excessive pollution in our oceans sparked a lot of conversation in our societies and we started researching how all of this pollution occurs and how it is affecting our lives. “Plastic pollution is an emerging contaminant on island shorelines and adjacent coastal and oceanic waters, impacting fisheries, creating navigational hazards, and affecting tourism by its negative aesthetic appeal.”7 Even though you might think that ocean pollution doesn’t affect our lives, ocean pollution is negatively affecting many things on our planet and will eventually be the cause of its destruction.
Why don’t we just clean up the pollution? Many people ask this question, even Boyan Slat. The simple answer to this question is that “we can’t clean it up. It’s too big and too broad. Simply put, we have to stop putting the stuff into the ocean.”8 There is no possible way that we can just simply pick up all of the ocean pollution because there is just too much of it. Boyan Slat realized this and started researching what he could do to help. “After digging deeper into the world’ plastic pollution problem, Boyan was surprised to find that no one has made any serious attempts to tackle the issue.”9
An ocean pollution clean-up seems impossible to most. This is because most people would rather not think twice about recycling because throwing everything away in the trash is more convenient. All that we can do is simply reduce, reuse, and recycle. The phrase “reduce, reuse, and recycle” has been incorporated into elementary school teaching in recent years. Although these things have been taught, most people don’t take it seriously. Now is the time to really take control of the ocean pollution and find realistic possible solutions. While cleaning our ocean pollution is a great steppingstone to cleaning up our environment, this is only a short-term solution. Developing a long-term solution is necessary to be able to cut down on the pollution in the future and eventually eliminate it. Everyone on this planet plays such a big role in the issue of ocean pollution. We are the ones who created this issue and we are the only ones who can reverse it and prevent an issue like this from occurring in the future. What if we just let all of the plastic disintegrate like everything else and not make an effort to pick it up? “How long will it take for plastic to completely biodegrade?”10 The answer to this question is actually very simple. Plastic, for the most part, is not biodegradable. To be a biodegradable object is to be able to break down over time. Because plastic is non-biodegradable, scientists’ estimate that it would take a range from 450 years to never for a piece of plastic to biodegrade.11
After Boyan Slat’s eyeopening scuba diving trip, he decided to start researching ocean plastic pollution to get a better understanding of what he was dealing with. He soon realized “that no one has made any serious attempts to tackle the issue.”12 Boyan Slat then realized that he had the perfect opportunity to make a change to help the world. At this time, Boyan Slat was expected to participate in his school’s science fair and he realized that ocean pollution would be the perfect science project for him. While he would be researching for a grade, he was also researching for his own personal gain. He became so passionate in his research that he decided to dedicate his entire science project to the problem. Early in his research, he identified “five major zones in the world oceans where the ocean’s currents converge. These are often called ‘garbage patches.’ The sun’ UV rays in these zones slowly breaks down plastics into microplastics.”13 This led him to researching microplastics and soon discovered the dangers of them. Boyan Slat wanted to make a difference and create change but “Boyan quickly realized that cleaning the oceans using ships and nets would take thousands of years, cost billions of dollars, and harm sea life.”14
The North Pacific Garbage Patch is an area within what is known as the North Subtropical Convergence Zone, which has become a trash vortex. The patch is not, as is often believed, a solid island of trash, but a gyre, twice the size of Texas, where winds and currents draw diffuse floating debris onto a vast carousel that never stops.15 These gyres are formed by surface currents that are primarily a combination of Ekman currents driven by local winds, and geostrophic currents maintained by the balance between sea level gradients and the Coriolis force.16 The Pacific Gyre, located in the North Pacific Ocean midway between California and Hawaii, is one of the most polluted areas of ocean worldwide. There are four other ocean gyres in the world, but scientists believe that the North Pacific Gyre contains the most trash—nearly two trillion pieces of plastic, weighing nearly eight thousand metric tons.17
These numbers really put into perspective how serious this issue really is. Plastic is not meant to be filling our oceans; water and marine life are. As you can imagine, all of this plastic in our oceans can never be good for us humans, the creatures in the oceans, or our environment. “Plastics are polluting the oceans, rivers, and beaches of the world, and studies show that even the tiniest pieces pose a large threat.”18 It’s not just the big plastic objects that are affecting us. It’s also the tiny microplastics that severely harm us as well. Species who reside on or in the coasts and beaches seem to be affected by ocean pollution more than any other. “A wide range of marine life, including marine mammals, reptiles and birds, is impacted by plastic pollution through entanglement or ingestion.”19 “Plastic accounts for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and seals every year. Countless fish, it says, die either from mistakenly eating the plastic or from becoming entangled in it and drowning.”20 When you look a little deeper, you find that “nearly 700 species of marine animals are known to have been affected by ocean plastics. Some may develop tumors or liver damage because the plastics are sponges for soaking up pollutants such as mercury, flame retardants, and pesticides. These toxins make their way up the food chain.”21 “Plastic pollution is an emerging contaminant on island shorelines and adjacent coastal and oceanic waters, impacting fisheries, creating navigational hazards, and affecting tourism by its negative aesthetic appeal.”22 Ocean pollution negatively affects us all, and for what? Convenience?
After Boyan Slat completed his research on ocean pollution, he decided to make an impact on our world. After he realized that simply cleaning up the ocean was unrealistic, he developed a different method. “Instead of going after the plastic, he will create a ‘passive concentration system.’ In this system, the ocean currents bring the plastic to him.”23 Boyan Slat decided to create his own charity for the cause called The Ocean Clean Up. He knew that he had to share his ideas with the world or else he wouldn’t achieve his goals. After Boyan Slat graduated high school, he decided it was time to share his solution to our world’s ocean pollution issue. “Boyan presented his idea at a TEDx conference” to hopefully make an impact in their lives.24 His TEDx was titled “How Oceans Can Clean Themselves,” which is an inaccurate title for his cause, because he was going to design a machine that would clean the oceans for us. But, as most other scientific ideas, his plan was not noticed by the science community until about a year later when “Boyan’s TEDx video was picked up by several news sites and went viral. Hundreds of thousands of people liked his idea.”25 Boyan had been starting to design his ocean pollution solution and started developing goals he had for his company. “Boyan imagines that eventually, up to 60 devices that will ride the waves, collecting thousands of tons of debris a year.” With these devices that he and his team have built, they have “goals of cleaning up half the Great Ocean Garbage Patch by 2025.”26
“Boyan and his staff of 70-plus engineers, researchers, and scientists, have designed System 001.”27 This system has brought to life their visions and goals to clean up our oceans. Slat has stated that all of their research and testing “strongly indicates that our vision is attainable and that the beginning of our mission to rid the ocean of plastic garbage, which has accumulated for decades, is within our sights.”28 It has taken Boyan and his team years to master their vision of System 001, and it is finally perfect. The Ocean Cleanup visions from when they first presented his ideas at the TEDx have changed completely, for the better. Among the Ocean Cleanup team is a hydrodynamic engineer, Reijnder de Feijter, who helped form the concept of letting the ocean help to remove the pollution. The Ocean Cleanup allows “the use of the ocean’s natural forces to capture the plastic.” Reijnder de Feijter further explains how System 001 is ocean powered, leaving all the work to be done to the ocean itself.29 System 001 has a 600 meter long floating barrier that sits at the surface of the water, which prevents plastic from flowing over, as well as a 3 meter deep skirt that prevents any debris from under the ocean’s surface from escaping.30 This massive, floating barrier acts as an artificial coastline that moves with the currents.31 “As the system moves faster than the plastic, it allows the debris to be captured.”32 After the plastics are collected and brought to the collection zone, the plastics are loaded onto a boat and taken for recycling.”33
With System 001, the Ocean Cleanup team predicts that their systems could clean up 50% of the pollution in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years.34 With that being said, we all can’t just sit back and rely on the Ocean Cleanup. We have to do our part as well. “Plastic pollution enters the marine environment via rivers, beaches, maritime activities, and illegal dumping at sea,” meaning that we are the prime reason for all of the pollution in our oceans.35 One simple thing we can do to help the Ocean Cleanup is to donate. “Boyan Slat said the Ocean Cleanup is financially comfortable at the moment but will need more money to scale up.”36 “People have actually been donating and supporting the Ocean Cleanup for awhile. Ocean Cleanup reportedly has raised $40 million from online donations, charitable groups, the Dutch government, and individuals, including PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.”37 This is a great step toward improvement and if we keep going on this path and even increase the donations, Ocean Cleanup will not have to worry about being in a bad financial state. It will be able to focus on cleaning our oceans. “However, the Ocean Cleanup is facing steep operating costs. For example, Boyan Slat said the group’s lone vessel in the patch costs 15,000 to 20,000 euros a day” to operate.38
Ocean pollution is a big problem in our ecosystem and “we can’t just clean it up. It’s too big and too broad. Simply put, we have to stop putting the stuff into the ocean.” Here are a few great ways to eliminate the plastics that we use on a day to day basis from getting into our oceans: create “bioplastic, which are plastics made from plants, second-hand uses, refurbish plastic into things like shoes and toys, turn plastics into energy, recycle, and use canvas shopping bags and reusable coffee mugs.”39 Recycling our plastics seems so simple to do but no one actually does it. Surprisingly, “the U.S. produces 100 billion pounds of plastic a year, recycling only 5 per cent.”40 An effective solution to get our society to recycle more is to provide as many recycle bins into our environment as trash bins. If we had a recycling bin next to every trash bin, there would be no excuse for anyone to not recycle.
Boyan Slat is an incredibly talented man who has truly changed our world for the better. Slat is also such an inspiring man when it really comes down to it. When Boyan Slat is around the ocean, “he gets violently seasick.”41 This shows how truly dedicated he is to the cause and will do anything to fix the ocean pollution problem. Boyan Slat’s story is a great reminder to never underestimate the youth. “His story helps reminds us that creative ideas come from people of all ages and that kids really can change the world.”42
The Ocean Cleanup
Ana Cravioto Herrero
It is so sad that we have caused so much harm to this planet and its wildlife. I am glad that there are people like Boyan Slat that have the initiative to try to find solutions, but as stated, the responsibility actually ends up on all of us as consumers. Plastic cannot be destroyed so it is our responsibility to dispose of it properly, if not it will continue to build up in the Garbage Patch or even the rest of the gyres.