Cleaning up ocean plastics pollution
by Arthur Neslen
Dutch prototype clean-up boom brings Pacific plastics solution a step closer
A bid to clear the Pacific of its plastic debris has moved a step closer with the launch of the biggest prototype clean-up boom yet by the Dutch environment minister at a port in The Hague.
The 100m-long barrier will be towed 20km out to sea for a year of sensor-monitored tests, before being scaled up for real-life trials off the Japanese coast at the end of next year.
If all goes well, full-scale deployment of a 100km-long version will take place in the “great Pacific garbage patch” between California and Hawaii in 2020.
The Dutch environment minister, Sharon Dijksma said that her government, which part-funded the test, was fully backing the project, which will eventually cost around €300m:
“We can use our political pressure with other governments, businesses and the international institutions to fund this on an even bigger scale. We are used to fronting public-private [partnerships] like this. It is not new for us. When it is a success, philanthropists will be standing in line asking to join us.”
The snake-like ocean barrier is made out of vulcanised rubber and works by harnessing sea currents to passively funnel trash in surface waters – often just millimetres in diameter – into a V-shaped cone.
A cable sub-system will anchor the structure at depths of up to 4.5km – almost twice as far down as has even been done before – keeping it in place so it can trap the rubbish for periodic collection by boats.
A fully scaled-up barrier would be the most ambitious ocean cleansing project yet, capturing around half of the plastic soup that circles the Pacific gyre within a decade. That at least is the plan.
The largely crowd-funded project has caught the imagination of a new generation in the Netherlands. In no small part this is down to the unaffected charisma of its 21-year-old founder Boyan Slat, a student dropout turned environmental entrepreneur. He says:
“The key objective of these tests is to see if we can build something that can survive at sea for years if not decades. We want to test the efficiency of the system, understand its behaviour, and see what damage it suffers over time from abrasion or fatigue.”
After promising tests at the Marin research institute in Waginengen earlier this year, the prototype was developed with the renowned dredging and marine contractor, Royal Boskalis Westminster. Peter Berdowski, the firm’s CEO, described it as “a wonderful concept” and “very inspiring”.
The Dutch government is so convinced of its feasibility that it is taking Slat to Indonesia in November, as part of a high-level climate and trade mission, led by the prime minister, Mark Rutte.
Discussions are likely to focus on the possibility of attaching the barrier to the mouths of river inlets as a way of staunching the 800 metric tonnes of plastic which stream into the Pacific and Indian oceans every year. Dijksma said:
“We will try to see if there is a possibility to put this project in place with the Indonesian government too. We have not done the deal yet. But the fact that Boyan will be in the delegation is important because we only take people with us when we think they offer solutions that could be interesting for other governments.”
With up to 29.1 items of rubbish per metre, the Indonesian archipelago has the world’s second highest concentration of shoreline marine debris, after Sicily which has 231 items per metre.
In 2014, 311m tonnes of plastic were produced around the world, a 20-fold increase since 1964 that is expected to quadruple again by mid-century.
A report by the Ellen MacArthur foundation earlier this year predicted that there would be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, unless urgent action was taken.
◊ Publ. here 23.6.2016