Cleaning Our Oceans – With Plastic?

What if you could clean plastic out of the ocean – using plastic?

Well, we’re about to find out if that’s possible.  The Ocean Cleanup Project is a sort of giant plastic broom, to “sweep up” plastic floating out in the ocean.  And it’s headed out into the Pacific Ocean right now, ready to get to work.

Here’s how it will work:  this “broom”, is a big plastic tube, 2000 feet long, that floats on the surface of the water.  Underneath, a plastic sheet (the “bristles” part) extends down about ten feet.  The wind and the waves push the “broom” through the water – and the plastic sheet catches up the plastic in the water.  Gradually, the waves and the wind bend the tube into a U-shape, pushing the plastic into a smaller and smaller space.  When enough plastic is “swept up”, a ship comes in, scoops up the plastic and takes it back to dry land for recycling and reuse.

No engines, no crew – the broom just drifts along in the ocean, gathering up plastic (it has to be towed to where it’s needed).  Fish and other water life can just swim underneath it.  And it has plenty of lights and sensors and antennas – so it can be seen day or night, and so it can signal where it is and when it needs to be emptied out.

It could sweep up plastic in the water anywhere, but the plan is to turn it loose on the areas where there’s a high concentration of plastic trash in the ocean.  So after a trial run off the California coast (you can follow along at The Ocean Cleanup), the plan is to tow it out to what’s sometimes called “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the eastern Pacific – and literally, turn it loose.

We do know that this is a creative approach to the problem of plastics in the oceans (and interestingly, it didn’t come from a university or a corporation – it was the idea originally of a Dutch teenager who saw the problem and wanted to be part of the solution).

And it may be, as Ocean Cleanup is hoping, that with a full fleet of “brooms” in the water – half of that “garbage patch” could be cleaned up in just five years.  Or it may be – “Oops.”  That, we will find out, by testing it out.

But we also know that there isn’t going to be one Answer.  The answers will include continuing the work of finding new (re)uses for our used plastics – the answers will include all of us working to recycle the plastics we use, rather than trashing them – the answers may even include new plastics that will break down when we’re done with them (we’ll have more on this research in a future story) – and the answers will definitely include ways to get rid of plastics that are already in places they ought not to be (like the ocean).

Finding the answers we need, will certainly include some false starts, some mistakes, some “oops” moments.   But that’s always the path forward.  So stay tuned, and stay open-minded – the next good idea may be yours!

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