How to clean up the ocean

Dutch start-up The Ocean Cleanup deployed their updated system last month while US non-profit organisation Ocean Voyages Institute announced that it has successfully removed more than 36 tonnes (40 US tons) of fishing nets and consumer plastics from the ocean.

That plastic waste is polluting the ocean won’t come as a surprise. Alarming news that microplastic is even found in the great depths of the Mariana Trench and predictions that in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean don’t promise much good for the future.

Fortunately, people have started to fight back. Bans on plastic bags and other single use plastics have been announced, and many companies have started using recycled plastic, rescued from the ocean or not.

The Ocean Cleanup
However, while beach and ocean clean-ups are aplenty, a large scale ocean clean-up has not been realised. Many fixed their hopes on The Ocean Cleanup by Boyan Slat. The initiative has won several prizes even before it was deployed in late 2018 and has an ambitious goal: to clean up half the world’s largest accumulation zone of ocean plastics, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within 5 years.

The idea is relatively simple. A long floating tube shaped like a U sits on the surface of the water and follows floating plastic waste by means of wind power and currents, capturing the waste in its barrier. The trash can then be collected.

Unfortunately, despite extensive testing, the project has faced some hiccups. After just a few months at sea, the barrier has become fractured and was struggling to maintain the speeds necessary to gather up trash. Even though the media has embraced the project, experts remain sceptical.

Despite the setbacks, The Ocean Project has not lost sight of their goal and deployed an upgraded version of their barrier equipped with a couple of new features. One is the attachment of a string of huge inflatable buoys across the system’s opening. This should add to the windage of the system and pull it through the water faster. In case this doesn’t work, the start-up came up with a parachute-like sea anchor to slow down the barrier.

Ocean Voyages Institute
While the updates of the Ocean Cleanup look promising, they still have to prove themselves. The Ocean Voyages Institute, on the other hand, have done so, by removing 36 tonnes of plastic from an area known as the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone or the Pacific Gyre.

In the Pacific, between California and Hawaii, four ocean currents converge to create a vortex that contains huge amounts of plastics, ranging from beer crates to children’s toys to furniture. A prime target for the OV Institute’s voyages was free floating fishing nets also known as ghost nets.

Rather than a barrier, the OV Institute’s mission relied on satellite technology. They used expert drone operators that flew survey patterns from the boats to find debris, In addition, the institute has recruited yachts and ships in the past year to attach satellite trackers to ghost nets they encountered. These bowling ball-sized trackers, once activated, signal the nets’ locations in real time. This data enables the institute to find and retrieve the trackers and ghost nets.

The 2019 voyage took 25 days and collected 36 tonnes of debris. In 2020, the OV Institute aims to do a 3 month mission to collect even more plastics.

While they gathered more than most clean-up missions, this is of course but a drop in the ocean (pun intended) of the actual size of the problem. Hopefully, more successful large-scale missions will be carried out, but more importantly, creative professionals and material specifiers will have to become serious about fighting (virgin) plastic from becoming waste in the first place.

Photos: The Ocean Cleanup / Ocean Voyages Institute


  1. Stephan Vallet says:

    Plastic collect is not a small job. It has to be industrial, durable and to avoid additional pollution during the collect… What a challenge !
    VDesign, my naval engineering company, designed the MANTA II for The Sea Cleaners.
    It is a boat designed to collect floating waste in oceans using about 75% of renewable energy to work. It is an industrial project for which we invented a new hull design, a new energy design and a new way to sail with wind and sun.
    this high efficiency and low carbon concept could be adapted to a lot of working boats…