Dutch Foundation Unveils Prototype System to Rid the World’s Oceans of Plastic

Ocean Cleanup prototype
The Ocean Cleanup Foundation’s prototype floating barrier sits in front of the MV Union Bear, which later this week will install the prototype in the North Sea. Credit: Ocean Cleanup Foundation

A Dutch foundation developing an advanced clean-up system to rid the world’s oceans of plastic has unveiled its first-ever prototype to be launched later this week in the North Sea.

The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, founded by now 21-year-old Boyan Slat when he was just teenager, unveiled its North Sea prototype on Wednesday before main sponsors Boskalis and the government of The Netherlands.

The prototype will be installed in the North Sea approximately 12 nautical miles off the Dutch coast, where it will remain for a period of 12 months. The objective is to test how The Ocean Cleanup’s floating barrier fares in extreme weather at sea, even more severe than the types of conditions that a full-scale version of the system may encounter.

Once installed, the prototype will be the first ocean cleanup system ever tested at sea.

The foundation says that the 100 meter-long barrier segment to be deployed will help validate the survivability of the system, while sensors will track every motion of the prototype and the loads it is subjected to. The data gathered will enable engineers to develop a system fully resistant to severe conditions during the cleanup of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a enormous area of the northern Pacific Ocean where an insurmountable amount of trash has accumulated in mid-ocean gyres.

The design of the system uses long floating barriers which act as an artificial coastline, using the ocean’s natural currents to passively catch and concentrate ocean debris – such as trash and broken down plastics. Although some trash may be caught during the North Sea prototype test, collecting plastic is not its objective.

“This is a historic day on the path toward clean oceans,” commented Slat, at the unveiling of the prototype in the Hague. “A successful outcome of this test should put us on track to deploy the first operational pilot system in late 2017.”

Slat also notes that a successful test does not necessarily mean the prototype will survive. “I estimate there is a 30% chance the system will break, but either way it will be a good test.”

The Ocean Cleanup Foundation’s system continues to be the world’s best bet for cleaning up accumulated trash and plastics from the world’s oceans, if it’s even possible. The foundation hopes to have a full version of the system in place in the Pacific Ocean by 2020.

The Ocean Cleanup Foundation has already received EUR 1.5 million in funding for the prototype project, a third of which was provided by dredging and marine contractor Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V. (Boskalis). The Government of The Netherlands, through the ministries of Infrastructure & the Environment and Economic Affairs, has committed to contributing another EUR 500,000. Additional funding has been pledged by an anonymous donor.