Boyan Slat – The New Picture of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (2018)


So in order to solve a problem, you really first have to understand the problem. In the early days of the technology development in 2014-2015, it became rapidly apparent that we simply didn’t know enough about the problem yet to be able to develop an optimal solution. Then we wondered, well, why is that so, why don’t we know enough? Researchers have been doing great work since the 1970’s actually in terms of mapping plastic in this Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But the thing was that the data was very scattered, and we had this hunch that there was this measurement bias towards the smaller pieces because of the way we have been sampling in the past. To solve that, we thought well, let’s cover a larger area. What if we just crossed this Great Pacific Garbage Patch with 50 boats at the same time, all taking measurements in parallel, and that way we do cover a very large area and get a good sample of what is out there. By that point in time, the exact number of vessels that we had secured for this expedition… was zero. Definitely it required a lot of cold calling. Just us driving from marina to marina, in Hawaii and California, spreading flyers around. So, the question to you is… are you willing to join this expedition? Was quite a lot of work, but eventually I think it paid off. We chartered a former NOAA vessel, as a mothership for the fleet, and, eventually, we got to 30 vessels. There is a lot of plastic in the oceans. It’s scary, guys. Over. So, what have we got? I think we got found this time even more. We got a lot of plastic, bigger plastic pieces. By September 2015, we completed the Mega Expedition. We got all our samples in, it was a survey effort of unprecedented size. But, while doing so, we collected a few ghost nets, which are these very large sort of balls of nets and ropes, which are very dangerous to marine life, to vessels as well. The number of nets we collected was too low to do good science with, to do good statistics with, but it was high enough for us to have a suspicion that this would be actually a very major component of the problem. But, we just crossed the ocean with 30 boats at the same time and then we thought, well, to get a good analysis of these nets, we need to cover an even larger area. So how on Earth are we going to do that? How would you normally cross a large area? Well, you would jump on an airplane. So then we thought, well what if we actually got ourselves an airplane to do this survey? And that actually led to the first aerial reconnaissance mission of an ocean garbage patch ever. We crossed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with a C-130 Hercules aircraft twice. We fitted this airplane with the most advanced aerial sensors in the world, which included short wave infrared sensors, as well as LiDar sensors. And this is really the same technology that self-driving cars use, where we are actually able to get a sort of a 3D point cloud of the debris, through we are also able to estimate whether it was just debris or a net at the surface, or whether it actually went down. So, then we had the count, we had the volume, and through that we could actually estimate, based on the nets that we got with the Mega Expedition, how heavy those nets would be. And now it actually turns out that the nets that we spotted would actually comprise about half of the mass of plastic out there in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. So then, we had these shipping containers full with ocean plastic arriving here in the Netherlands. We have these 1.2 million pieces of plastic, and somehow we need to count them and we need to turn this physical matter into data, into numbers. Within no time, we found ourselves a group of interns. They started this monumental effort of actually separating the plastic from the plankton with a pair of tweezers, one by one, day in day out, and I just have this immense amount of respect for the work that they did. And then it was really time to put the paper together. And really the challenge was to take this huge amount of data, and then present it in a concise matter, compact enough so that we can actually submit it to a journal. And our research found that there is about 80 million kilos of plastic floating around, which constitutes to 1.8 trillion pieces of ocean plastic inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Interestingly, I think these results will again change the face of what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch actually looks like. Back in the 90’s, when this big story about the garbage patch started appearing, through the media it was blown up to this island of plastic where you could actually walk on. As the years passed and more research came in, that kind of flipped completely the other way to it just being these small confetti-sized pieces of plastic, which you could hardly see with the naked eye. And now what we see is that actually, the truth is somewhere in between. Well sure it’s not an island you can walk on, but it’s definitely not just confetti-sized pieces of plastic either. Even though by count most of these pieces of plastic are small, if you look at it from a mass perspective, actually most of the debris is large and we see that about 92% of the plastic isn’t microplastic but is large plastic. These results also show why it’s so important that we are cleaning up this garbage patch in the near future. Because when you think about it, those 8% of plastic that are already microplastics, They used to be large objects as well, but because of UV lights, it breaks down into these smaller and smaller pieces becoming harder to clean up and magnifying the impact of the problem. So these results now allow us to further improve our cleanup technology, and it also gives us a baseline to which we can compare the success of the cleanup. So we know the point where we start, and then while we’re cleaning up, in the next few years, we can continue to measure how much plastic is out there and then compare it to the baseline and see how far we’ve come.

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