Two years ago, a Dutch teenager, Boyan Slat, came up with an idea to help clean up the massive patches of plastic rubbish that are killing marine life and ruining the oceans. I have to admit to being a little sceptical because any mechanical clean-up of an ocean would seem to underestimate the sheer hard-to-grasp size of an ocean. But the first tests of his idea are about to start just off the Japanese coast. He’s working through his organisation, The Ocean Clean-Up and local islanders whose beaches and fishing grounds are awash with rubbish.
The basic idea is to deploy a huge curved floating boom & scoop system that gathers the plastic to a central station that works like a bit like a floating oil rig pushing those inflatable booms used to stop oil spills from spreading. Marine life won’t get caught up in it because it doesn’t use nets; fish, turtles, whales and dolphins can safely swim underneath the boom and in the open ocean there’s a good chance that the booms will offer a scarce source of shelter for many species whose habitats are being ruined by human industry and pollution.
At first, the tests will be small scale but The Ocean Clean-Up intends to clean a huge area between California and Hawaii with a huge hundred kilometre system of rigs in just a few years. The question that remains is how effective the system will be because most of the plastic is in tiny bits suspended below the surface rather than easily scooped floating bottles and bags. Still, if they can catch the larger pieces before they break up, it will be a huge step forward and we’ll see within a few short years if Slat’s idea can make a real impact.