On the way to self-cleaning oceans

Most people have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. What few people realize is this floating island of plastic waste is just one of five that now exist around the world.

For those who care about the planet, these ocean gyres are annoying symptom of an even bigger problem. Many people wonder, “why don’t we just go skim it all up”?! To do so by traditional means would be costly and inefficient, but a new design from young entrepreneur Boyan Slat could provide a much smarter solution.

At a recent TEDx talk, Slat proposed an array of floating devices that could autonomously remove more than 7 million tons of plastic suspended in the top layer of the gyres while saving wildlife and millions of dollars for the shipping industry each year.

The problem with trying to clean up ocean garbage patches with a boat and a pool skimmer (besides being a mountainous task) is that the plastic doesn’t stay put–it’s constantly moving. According to Slat, the best way to combat this slippery characteristic is to stay still. His manta ray-shaped platforms would be fixed to the sea bottom in a zig-zagging pattern. Sporting long, floating booms — not nets — they would intercept garbage moving on ocean currents and process it into a fixed container.

“By using floating booms instead of nets, much larger areas will covered,” explains Slat on the project website. “No mesh means that even the smallest particles will be diverted and extracted. No mesh – together with its low speed – will result to virtually no by-catch. Although this hypothesis still has to be tested, even the planktonic species – due to their density being close to that of the sea water – may move under the booms along with the water flow.”

Slat also claims that the platforms will be completely self-supportive, receiving their energy from the sun, currents and waves. And by letting the platforms’ wings sway like an actual manta ray, the design ensures contact with the water’s surface, even in the roughest weather. Removing the plastic from the ocean would save industry millions per year. “Marine vessels are damaged every year from the garbage floating in the ocean, countries lose money when tourists no longer want to visit their polluted beaches,” reports Mashable.

The idea certainly sounds promising, and Slat even believes he could make it profitable by recycling the captured debris, BUT it’s far from reality right now. “Although the preliminary results look promising, and our team of about 50 engineers, modellers, external experts and students is making good progress, we had and have no intention of presenting a concept as a feasible solution while still being in investigative phase,” states Slat. A feasibility study should be published in few months. We’ll keep you posted.

* Beth Buczynski, EarthTechling