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NonprofitWe are Boyan Slat and Laurent Lebreton, the founder and the Lead Oceanographer of The Ocean Cleanup. We just published the most comprehensive study on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. AMA!

Mar 24th 2018 by BoyanSlat • 16 Questions • 1016 Points

We're Boyan Slat, founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, and Laurent Lebreton, The Ocean Cleanup's Lead Oceanographer. The Ocean Cleanup is a non-profit organization developing advanced technologies to rid the world's oceans of plastic. This summer we are deploying our first cleanup system inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California. (see a short summary about TOC here: https://www.facebook.com/TheOceanCleanup/videos/1569348903098152/)

To solve a problem, you need to fully understand it. On Thursday we published a paper in Scientific Reports. This paper paints the most comprehensive picture of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to date. The patch has the highest accumulation of floating plastic debris in the world’s oceans, and we found it may hold up to 16 times more plastic than previously estimated.

Find out more about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch here: https://www.theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/

and here: https://youtu.be/0EyaTqezSzs

We will start answering your questions at 12pm ET / 5 pm CET.

Ask us anything!

Proof: https://imgur.com/a/3MDmK

EDIT: We have finished answering our last question. Thanks to all of you for participating in our AMA!

Q:

What can we do to help, except from using less plastic and give money?

And by the way: thank you so, so much for your idea and your enthusiasm. I really admire your work.

A:

Laurent: Thank you! You can also get involved, find local beach cleanup initiatives if you live by the sea or river cleanup if you are in land. I always tell people, if you go to the outdoors, bring at least three pieces of trash back with you. Boyan: + we're always looking for smart people to join our team - see our current vacancies on https://www.theoceancleanup.com/careers/


Q:

Do you believe we will someday be able to fully eliminate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

A:

To solve the problem, we need to do two things: stopping the inflow and removing the accumulated mass. With our upcoming cleanup, we aim to remove 50% of the patch every 5 years. However, what will happen is that we'll be 'thinning out' the patch, meaning that it takes as much time to go from 0 to 50% removed as from 80% to 90% removed. Therefore, we would never be able to remove every last piece of plastic from the patch, but we are confident our target of a 90% reduction by 2040 is possible. Boyan


Q:

Hi guys, the best £20 I ever spent was your crowdfunding campaign years ago. This project seems to be going from success to success - thanks for all your hard work. What are the biggest obstacles that remain? Thanks

A:

Boyan: thanks for your support! Well, obviously we haven't cleaned the ocean yet, so plenty of challenges remain. The most important thing on the road to success is to get cleanup system #1 to work. Because of the scale of the system and the unpredictability of the ocean, there are plenty things that can go wrong. Either way, it's going to be an exciting 12 months ahead...


Q:

What percentage of the garbage patch is composed of recyclable waste? And, do you think there are recycling methods on the horizon for the waste that cannot currently be recycled? Would this not be dissimilar to concepts such as "landfill mining"?

A:

Boyan: in principle all the plastic we'll collect from the patch is recyclable. However, there is a wide range of qualities, and the lower the quality, the most it costs to process. About half of the plastic is good enough for mechanical recycling, while the other halve's polymer chains are too oxidized and would require a thermal or chemical route. We'll share more on this once we have the first plastic back in port.


Q:

How did all the garbage get into the ocean and is there anything I can do to prevent more garbage from getting there?

A:

Laurent: Plastic comes from land (the coast or from rivers) or from the sea (fishing, shipping, aquaculture...). As an individual, you can try not to use that much single use plastic and be careful not to litter. Ocean plastic pollution starts in the street!


Q:

When will the first collecting-machine-thing (do you have a cool name for it?) be set into the ocean? I heard it was promised to do so by may of this year, will you be able to archive this?

A:

Boyan: According to our 'all goes well planning', Cleanup System #1 is set to be deployed for the first time by late May. This will still be a trial run (240NM off the coast of California) to check the system behaves well. The real launch, to the patch, is scheduled for July/August this year. PS we still welcome naming suggestions!


Q:

How do you feel about the outcome of your research?

A:

Laurent: our study helps the research on marine litter go one step further. It's an interesting science where the more you look the more you find. The numbers speak by themselves, it is good to see the outreach of the study as more and more people are becoming aware of the issue. Boyan: the results really underline the urgency to act; right now, less than 1% of the mass of the patch is smaller than 1.5mm. If we let the other 99% of the patch left to fragment, it would of course be in a pretty bad situation.


Q:

Hi Boyan and Laurent,

In terms of long-term operation, will you have crews actively monitor/guard each cleanup system? Things such as rogue shipping containers or other ships/boats come to mind which could potentially damage the cleanup systems.

Thanks for all that you’re doing!

A:

Boyan: The systems will operate autonomously - satellite-connected sensors allow us to monitor the health of all systems. For this year's Cleanup System #1 we will have a vessel next to it for the first 6 months to gather additional data to help us improve the design.


Q:

Do you have any idea how fast the larger garbage patches can be shrunk by your methods of removal?

A:

Boyan: this is really budget-dependent; the more systems you deploy, the faster you clean. To get to our target of a 50% reduction in 5 years, and a 90% reduction by 2040, we currently estimate we'll need a fleet of 60 cleanup systems.


Q:

How do you guys make sure the cleanup systems keep clear from all the traffic that is at sea?

A:

Boyan: the systems will be fitted with basically everything we can do to ensure vessel know it's there, including AIS transponders, lights and radar reflectors. Having said that, the chances of our systems coming across vessels are pretty small; on average there are just 5 vessels in an area 3x the size of France.


Q:

How often will you need to go to the garbage patch to clean the system from what it collected? How many/how big ships will you need each time? What will be the amount of plastic collected on each of these trips?

(Thanks for what you're trying to achieve, and thanks for the inspiration you provide)

A:

Boyan: for system #1 we have scheduled a plastic collection cycle of 1.5 months. We'll see if that's enough!


Q:

Hi guys, in terms of the potential success of the ocean cleanup project. Will this have a significant impact on ocean wildlife populations?

(You guys rock, keep the up the incredible work!)

A:

Boyan: because our system moves through the ocean very slowly (10 cm/s average) and we use screens instead of nets, the system is designed to be safe for marine life. A full environmental impact assessment is coming out soon, but is looking good so far.


Q:

What is the oldest piece of plastic that you have found in the ocean?

A:

Laurent: the oldest identified object was a crate from 1977. Although that doesn't say if this really was the oldest one as many were unrecognizable fragments.


Q:

I recently read an article about a study that found particles of plastic not only in water, but also the air we breathe. To some degree, we've already seen some of the effects on wildlife, but what about humans?

A:

Laurent: we find plastic everywhere from Arctic to Antarctic, from sea surface to seabed, on land and in the atmosphere. A recent presentation last week at the International Marine Debris Conference in San Diego was talking about plastic fibers found in beers :/ I am not aware of evidence of direct harm on human from ingesting plastic BUT some persistent organic pollutants (POPs) found on ocean plastic for example are know to have adverse consequences on organisms including mammals AND also the science is very young: plastic was only introduced in the 50s in our societies.


Q:

Do you plan to continue measuring ocean plastic through mega expeditions and aerial surveys after the barriers have been deployed? If so, how frequently?

I imagine it's quite expensive to do either the 30-boat mega expedition or the aerial survey, but both produced compelling data in the video. I would guess this would be valuable for continuously improving the system, but perhaps it's enough to monitor the captured plastic by the barriers?

A:

Laurent: A monitoring vessel will be following the first system as we deploy it in the North Pacific. This will be a great opportunity to conduct additional research as well as measure the efficiency of the barrier. As a teaser, we are currently experimenting with drones and underwater deployment. Also working closely with partners on an European Space Agency projects to observe marine litter from space.


Q:

Was all that research really necessary just to fish plastic out of the sea?

A:

Boyan: back when we founded The Ocean Cleanup, we had no idea until what depth the plastic reaches, how much is out there and how large it is. It's pretty important to know these things if you want to develop a good cleanup technology.