When you think for a moment about what our species has managed during our short time on Earth, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that we’re capable of some pretty astonishing stuff when we put our minds to it.
We’ve set foot on the moon and travelled to the bottom-most depths of the world’s deepest oceans, and through incredible feats of science and engineering we have succeeded in mastering the world around us. Sadly, our accomplishments have undeniably come at a devastating cost to our planet which is as shameful as our greatest achievements are brilliant. If ever there was an example of this, we need look no further than the marine pollution crisis which now blights the world’s oceans – a grossly overlooked problem far more severe than many realise.
Few of us venture far beyond the shoreline of the countries which we call home, so it can be difficult to truly comprehend the size and scale of the oceans that cover over 70% of Earth’s surface. Suffice to say, without the 41,050,000sq. km expanse of water, which plays such a critical role in the carbon cycle that regulated our climates and weather systems, life as we know it simply would not and could not exist on Earth.
With this in mind, how is it that mankind has shown such disregard and an utter lack of respect to our oceans?
There is perhaps no better example of the growing maritime pollution crisis than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – one of five colossal floating rubbish patches trapped in the swirling, churning waters of the five major ocean gyres – colossal vortex-like systems made up of circular ocean currents in the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific Oceans.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a shameful monument to the modern world, but it isn’t the solid mass that the name suggests. Rather, it is a 10-metre-deep marine soup of plastic and man-made detritus, stretching out a distance twice the size of France’s landmass.
This toxic legacy of modern society has had a predictably devastating impact on marine life, and is responsible for killing over one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year. The effect that it must have on fish stocks and other marine life, whilst unknown, is surely just as devastating.
The dilemma surrounding how exactly mankind is going to clear up this mess has perplexed the world for decades – how on earth can so much rubbish be scooped up and disposed of? Fortunately, up-and-coming young minds like Boyan Slat – a brilliant Dutch inventor-entrepreneur – are beginning to find solutions where older minds have fallen short. Boyan Slat is the founder of The Ocean Cleanup, a foundation responsible for developing innovative, affordable technologies capable of collecting and extracting the plastic debris that litters the world’s oceans.
Since it was founded in 2013, Ocean Cleanup has developed a number of initiatives aimed at addressing the crisis, including the high-profile Project Kaisei; a research project which is in the process of assessing the true mass and distribution of the ocean’s plastic debris. Recently, the foundation embarked on a ‘Mega Expedition’ – an endeavour that saw approximately 30 vessels cross the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, using manta trawls and carrying out aerial surveys to measure the concentration and spatial distribution of plastics. This survey was conducted ahead of a large-scale clean-up of the area planned for 2020, which will utilise Boyan Slat’s signature innovation, the Ocean Cleanup Array: a passive network of 100-kilometre long floating barriers, anchored to the ocean floor. These V-shaped barrier networks are designed to interact with natural ocean currents, funnelling plastic debris towards a central point where the plastic can be extracted by a platform and stored for transportation and recycling.
The great work on the part of The Ocean Cleanup foundation should be seen as the humble beginnings of a campaign to rid our oceans of debris and pollution, rather than an end solution, however. One of the criticisms of Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Array is that it cannot yet capture plastics that have degraded into miniscule microplastics – a form of debris accounting for around 90% of all plastics in the ocean today. Additionally, the ocean surface is but the surface of the problem; researchers and marine experts have found that the pollution crisis facing our oceans extends to microplastics and synthetic fibres being frozen into ice cores, and all manner of unpleasantness which will prove difficult to rectify.
Still, the technologies developed by Boyan and The Ocean Cleanup foundation represent a step in the right direction. Here’s hoping that his great work is a sign of things to come.