Ocean Cleanup Project says engineering advances for plastic recovery will be tested in 2017

The Ocean Cleanup Project, Netherlands, stated in press releases dated 3rd and 11th May 2017:  The Ocean Cleanup, the Dutch foundation developing advanced technologies to rid the oceans of plastic, has announced it will start extracting plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within the next 12 months.

The Ocean Cleanup has further announced that parts of its first clean up system are already in production. Thanks to an improved design, The Ocean Cleanup has increased the efficiency of the system, allowing for the clean up of half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just 5 years.

The main idea behind The Ocean Cleanup is to let the ocean currents do the work.

An installation of U-shaped screens channels floating plastic to a central point. The concentrated plastic can then be extracted and shipped to shore for recycling into durable products.

The improvements announced involve the introduction of a mobile, or drifting system.

Rather than fixing the floating screens to the seabed at great depths, The Ocean Cleanup will apply sea anchors to ensure the floating screens move slower than the plastic.

Rather than one massive barrier, the improved, modular clean up system consists of a fleet of screens.

This new, modular technology and the successful funding round announced on 3rd May, 2017, enable The Ocean Cleanup to accelerate production, deployment and the actual extraction of plastic from the ocean. Testing of the first system will start off the American west coast by the end of 2017.

With the first deployment in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the first half of 2018, The Ocean Cleanup will start its mission two years ahead of schedule.

The Ocean Cleanup’s founder and CEO Boyan Slat demonstrated the new technology and unveiled the first parts of the cleanup system: four 12-meter (40-foot) high anchor components.

Boyan Slat commented: “At The Ocean Cleanup we are always looking for ways to make the clean up faster, better and cheaper. Today is another important day in moving in that direction. The clean up of the world’s oceans is just around the corner.” 

He added that the large-scale trials of its clean up technology in the Pacific Ocean later this year are still experimental in nature. “Due to our attitude of ‘testing to learn’ until the technology is proven, I am confident that — with our expert partners — we will succeed in our mission.

Founded in 2013 by then 18-year-old Boyan Slat, The Ocean Cleanup now employs approximately 65 engineers and researchers. The foundation is headquartered in Delft, The Netherlands.

Instead of going after plastic debris with vessels and nets — which would take many thousands of years and billions of dollars to complete — The Ocean Cleanup is developing a network of long floating barriers that act like an artificial coastline, enabling the natural ocean currents to concentrate the plastic.

Besides, The Ocean Cleanup designs processes to turn recovered ocean plastic into valuable raw materials.

In preparation for full-scale deployment, The Ocean Cleanup organized several expeditions to map the plastic pollution problem in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with unprecedented detail.

Meanwhile, the team has advanced its design through a series of rapid iteration scaling-up tests, followed by a 100-meter prototype, that was deployed on the North Sea in June 2016.

System tests off the American west coast will start by the end of 2017. The first deployment in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is scheduled to take place in the first half of 2018. According to computer models, The Ocean Cleanup will be able to remove 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just 5 years.

The Ocean Cleanup announced that it has successfully raised 21.7 million USD in donations since last November. This latest funding round brings The Ocean Cleanup’s total funding since 2013 to 31.5 million USD. This new contribution allows The Ocean Cleanup to initiate large-scale trials of its clean up technology in the Pacific Ocean later this year. 

This significant funding round is led by San Francisco-based philanthropists Marc and Lynne Benioff and an anonymous donor. Other supporters include the Julius Baer Foundation, Royal DSM, and Silicon Valley entrepreneur/investor Peter Thiel. 


Source: Press Release 11th May 2017 : www.theoceancleanup.com/press/press-releases-show/item/the-ocean-cleanup-announces-pacific-cleanup-to-start-in-2018
Press Release 3rd May 2017 : www.theoceancleanup.com/press/press-releases-show/item/the-ocean-cleanup-raises-217-million-usd-in-donations-to-start-pacific-cleanup-trials-1
Ocean Cleanup video : www.theoceancleanup.com


Marinet observes: To fully understand the engineering developments surrounding this project, we recommend that you view the video.

These engineering developments are impressive. If they prove to be validated via testing, they will greatly enhance the viability of the project.

That a problem — an immense problem — exists in the existence of the vast quantities of waste plastic now in the ocean and continuing to enter the oceans at an increasing rate each year is beyond dispute, as is its immensely adverse impact on marine life.

However, a number of unanswered questions still remain regarding this project.

Firstly, assuming the plastic is all collected (and there is a vast amount in the different gyresgyre A circular pattern of currents in an ocean in the differing oceans) what happens to all this plastic?

The Ocean Cleanup Project asserts that it can then be recycled. However the reality is that plastic recycling is currently bedevilled by technical and commercial problems. On the one hand, plastics need to be carefully separated by type, and they cannot be mixed to produce a “composite plastic”. Instead, each has to be carefully separated from the other. There are several principal types:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE)
  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polystyrene (PS)

So, when returned to land they will require sorting if they are to be recycled. Currently sorting presents considerable commercial problems, and many recycling (reuse) schemes for plastic require the plastic to be separated at source or only confined to the need to separate two or three different types, rather that the full gamut of different polymers that currently exist and which characterises the ocean plastic.

Second, there is the question — if the sorting problem is solved — concerning the condition of the specific plastic polymer (PET or HDPE, etc). Much of this plastic has been in the ocean for years and has become severely degraded by ultraviolet light and other environmental factors. Thus, will the quality of the plastic be of sufficient grade to be viable for reuse?

Thirdly, if the sorting problem begins to thwart the “recycling objective” of the Ocean Cleanup Project (as it distinctly might), what will then be the fate of this plastic? At present the plastic that is recovered on land and not sent for reuse (i.e. most) is incinerated. This incineration is justified on the grounds that it generates electricity, but the reality is that all the carbon it contains is released into the atmosphere, thus fuelling global warming and climate change. Therefore if the Ocean Cleanup plastic is not reused, will it be incinerated? That clearly would not be a good idea — the quantity in the oceans is enormous, and will be returned to land in vast amounts if the Ocean Cleanup project fulfils its potential — so the only carbon neutral option for this material would be land burial, or a carbon recovery scheme as being pioneered by the Allam Cycle. Is this viable ?

Fourthly, what is the carbon footprint of all the ships continually travelling out to these ocean gyres to collect all the plastic collected by the Ocean Cleanup Project? This looks like it will be significant, will be ongoing — plastic entering the ocean in the first place is not solved by the Ocean Cleanup Project so recovery will be a continual need — and thus needs to be quantified and evaluated. This evaluation has not yet been done.

Clearly, the vast quantities of waste plastic in the oceans is an immense and gravely serious problem. The Ocean Cleanup Project offers for the first time a serious prospect that it can be recovered, and thereby minimised in its currently adverse form.

However as we have pointed out there are a number of serious problems, environmental and commercial, which exist down the line for this project and for society as a whole, and these still appear to be unresolved and still outside the sphere of our consideration.

So one hurrah for this project. Two, if we are being very generous. But definitely not yet three.


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