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A Grand Plan to Clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

By Caroline Kormann,

In May, 2017, a twenty-two-year-old Dutch entrepreneur named Boyan Slat unveiled a contraption that he believed would rid the oceans of plastic. In a former factory in Utrecht, a crowd of twelve hundred people stood before a raised stage. The setting was futuristic and hip. A round screen set in the stage floor displayed 3-D images of Earth; behind Slat, another screen charted the rapid accumulation of plastic in the Pacific Ocean since the nineteen-fifties. Slat is pale and slight, and has long brown hair that resembles Patti Smith’s in the “Horses” era. He was dressed in a gray blazer, a black button-down, black slacks, and skateboarding sneakers, which he wears every day, although he doesn’t skateboard. Onstage, he presented plastic artifacts that he had collected from the Pacific during a research expedition: the back panel of a Gameboy from 1995, a hard hat from 1989, a bottle crate from 1977. “This thing is forty years old,” he said in Dutch-inflected English. “1977 was the year that Elvis Presley left the building for good, presumably.” The audience laughed. Slat then held up a clear plastic dish, filled with shards of plastic. “The contents of this dish are the actual stomach contents of a single sea turtle that was found dead in Uruguay last year,” he said. A picture of the dead turtle flashed on a screen behind him.

Then Slat made his pitch. In the next twelve months, he and a staff of engineers at the Ocean Cleanup, an organization he founded in 2013, would build the system they had designed, assemble it in a yard on San Francisco Bay, then set sail with it, travelling under the Golden Gate Bridge and out into the Pacific. Slat’s destination was the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, midway between California and Hawaii, an area within what is known as the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. The patch is not, as is often believed, a solid island of trash but a gyre, twice the size of Texas, where winds and currents draw diffuse floating debris onto a vast carrousel that never stops.

There are four other ocean gyres in the world, but scientists believe that the one in the North Pacific contains the most trash—nearly two trillion pieces of plastic, weighing nearly eighty thousand metric tons, according to a study that scientists working with the Ocean Cleanup published in the online journal Scientific Reports last March. The study found that ninety-two per cent of the pieces are large fragments and objects: toothbrushes, bottles, umbrella handles, toy guns, jerricans, laundry baskets. Most problematic, and accounting for half of the plastic mass in the gyre, are what sailors call ghost nets: great tangles of mile-long discarded fishing nets weighing as much as two tons, which can ensnare animals such as seals and sea turtles. Attempting to fish out this drifting morass of trash using conventional methods—vessels, more nets—would be a Sisyphean task.


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