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© The Ocean Cleanup

interviews

The Largest Cleanup In History

by The Ocean Cleanup
January 16, 2019

The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization, developing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic.

What technology is at play in your effort to cleanup the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The idea is to create a coastline where there are none. The system consists of a 600-meter (2000 foot) U-shaped floater that sits at the surface of the water and a tapered 3-meter-deep skirt attached below. The floater provides buoyancy to the system and prevents plastic from flowing over it, while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath.

Both the plastic and system are being carried by the current. However, wind and waves should propel only the system, as the floater sits just above the water surface, while the plastic is primarily just beneath it. The system thus moves faster than the plastic, allowing the plastic to be captured. Once enough plastic has accumulated within the system, we will retrieve it with a “garbage truck of the sea” and return it to land for recycling. 

How do you cleanup microplastics?

The cleanup system is targeting 5 millimeter-sized plastics and above.  Microplastics will be extremely hard to retrieve. Although larger plastic fragments and objects, representing above 90% of the mass of trash out there, is a direct source of microplastics through degradation.

Our strategy is to retrieve these before they breakdown and amplify the microplastic contamination.

Are you concerned about waste patterns repeating? If production isnt halting, what do you anticipate your future to look like?

In order to reach our 90% cleaner ocean by 2040 goal, curative measures such as the development of our technologies aimed at removing the plastic that has already accumulated on the high seas must be met by preventive measures to keep it from entering the oceans in the first place.

Plastic will certainly need to be tackled at the source.

As of 2018, there were 27 countries that enacted policies implementing bans on (some) single-use plastics. The issue of plastic in the ocean and more generally waste generation is receiving global public attention. There is an evident will from citizens, NGOs but also industries and lawmakers to reduce waste generation and subsequently plastic emission into the ocean. In this context, we believe our project will bring further awareness to the plastic pollution problem that will inspire global efforts, on both an individual and collective scale, to be more conscientious of plastic waste.

What are the dangers of leaving these plastics in the ocean?

The amount of plastic left in the ocean will continue to accumulate and cause harm to marine life and ecosystems. Large plastics pose choking and strangulation risks, while small plastics can be ingested leaving animals malnourished – ultimately leading to death. Plastics have also been found to have chemicals that can be passed up the food chain, one that includes us humans.

Where are your other areas of interest, geographically speaking?

We aim to first approach the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and then to begin cleaning the other four gyres: Indian Ocean Gyre, North Atlantic Gyre, South Atlantic Gyre and South Pacific Gyre. Once we have proven our technology, we will also consider alternative technology for other waterways.

Theres an emphasis on river input into oceans in your research. Is there a way to stop/collect/remove plastic from rivers before they reach the ocean?

There have been several initiatives to stop plastic from entering the ocean, but nothing yet at a global scale, especially in the most polluting rivers.

Why are rivers so contaminated to begin with?

A lot of this has to do with waste management infrastructure, seeing as how the most-polluting rivers come from countries with an over abundance of waste and not enough recycling/waste disposal facilities to keep up with the quantity of refuse, illegal dumping and industrial outflows.

Much of the river contamination is coming from Asia – with China implementing a recycling ban, do you expect this problem to get better or worse?

China is taking much less “recyclable” plastic from the global waste market. While this is a problem for many countries as curb side collected plastic, now worth very little, are piling up near landfills, I see it as a good opportunity for recycling industries and new product design to thrive locally. While people in the West consume far more plastic per inhabitant, the population density in Asia results in large regional plastic demand and eventually waste.

Economic development in these countries must be met with investment in waste management infrastructure.

How does this project work with governments?

We have continually sought guidance and support from governmental institutions. For instance, in the Netherlands, the Dutch government has subsidized our first prototype testing and allowed us the space to test in the North Sea. They have also entered an agreement that our systems will be covered under Dutch Law according to the provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention. Additionally, we sought guidance from various agencies (both federal and at state level), the US Coast Guard and the City of San Francisco and Alameda when building and deploying our first cleanup system. The US Coast Guard also charted our operations area as a special operations zone to allow our activities to be observed and conducted safely for passing vessels. 

Does your effort involve policy?

We have entered into a special agreement with the Government of the Netherlands in regard to our activities offshore.

Who do these oceans belong to?

The oceans are not owned by any entity, but in accordance to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, rules are in place for maritime functions in offshore locations.

What is the process of approval for building and then launching your work out to sea?

Every step of the way, we consulted and sought guidance or permission from local governments. The assembly activities required various permits and specific space requirements that were aided by the City of Alameda, whereas our towing and deployment activities were carefully monitored with the US Coast Guard. We have also sought the advice of experts and have even invited a retired general in the US Coast Guard to join the Board of our North American Foundation.