Opinion: The surprising new design of the most ambitious ocean cleanup in history


Photo credit Erwin Zwart / The Ocean Cleanup.

By Cameron Brown

We’ve all heard some version of “ask better questions, get better answers.” It’s the type of philosophy that is held dearly by the great minds and the great leaders of our world.

When the founder of The Ocean Cleanup, Boyan Slat, was considering the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans in 2011, he embraced this philosophy and The Ocean Cleanup was born.

Why move through the ocean, when the ocean can move through you?


Photo credit: Erwin Zwart / The Ocean Cleanup.


Given that the World Economic Forum has reported that plastic is projected to outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050, projects like The Ocean Cleanup are desperately needed.

In a previous post, we described the inspiration and research behind the project, the basic design of the cleanup systems, and the launching of the first prototype in the North Sea.

Nine months and 21.7 million dollars in funding later, the mission remains the same but the basic design has changed.

While grappling with the problem of the complexity of mooring the cleanup system to the seabed in the middle of the Pacific, The Ocean Cleanup team had an epiphany.

To catch the plastic, act like the plastic.


Screenshot credit: The Ocean Cleanup.


Instead of having one large system anchored to the ocean floor, they now plan to deploy a fleet of smaller drifting systems that float where the plastic floats.

The science behind how this will work is fascinating and well worth listening to Boyan Slat explain it here (demonstration begins at 13:45).

In short, the systems will float with the same currents carrying the plastic, but they’ll float slower than the plastic because of the dragging anchor, which will allow them to catch the plastic.

Here are some big benefits of the new design:

  • Increased survivability from floating with currents instead of fighting against them
  • Can now scale up system by system making the financing of the project much more viable
  • Cuts the cleanup time in half due to systems moving with the plastic instead of waiting for the plastic to come

What’s Next for The Ocean Cleanup?


Photo credit: Erwin Zwart / The Ocean Cleanup.


The new prototype has been deployed and is currently being tested in the North Sea. The first cleanup system is now scheduled to hit the Pacific in the middle of 2018, two years sooner than expected.

The Ocean Cleanup has come a long way since its inception four short years ago, but the hard yards are still ahead.

If you believe in ridding our oceans of plastic, there are two ways you can support this project:

  1. Make a donation to help fund the scale-up phase.
  2. Share this post with a friend who would appreciate it.

Awareness is the first step in solving our grand challenges, and it’s never been easier to do our part in sharing.

First published on Cleantech Rising.

Cameron Brown is the co-creator of Cleantech Rising.

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