Big Blue Cleanup

Not all of us are going to stand by while the oceans drown in rubbish — there are superheroes coming to the rescue.

A gigantic island of plastic rubbish is floating around in the North Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it’s called, is the largest of all the garbage patches we know of. It consists of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic – as in 1,800,000,000,000. Or 250 pieces per living person. We’re talking 80,000 metric tonnes of plastic debris. Which equals the mass of 500 jumbo jets. The area of this garbage patch is 1.6 million square metres. In other words, three times the size of France. Crazy numbers. To say the least. And not only does the plastic poison and damage the diverse life in the ocean, that poison might reach us humans, too, through the seafood that we eat. And the fact that it’s us greedy, stupid, shortsighted humans that are responsible for creating this garbage patch in the first place doesn’t make it better.

Now, you might think I’m about to round this rant off with a metaphorical slap in your face with a bitter aftertaste of environmental shaming. You know, just to give you even more guilt than you probably already have. And then finish things off with a “spontaneous” selfie of me standing next to a recycling station. About to recycle takeout bags. From the new hip vegan joint around the corner. With the “seasonal” menu and all.But I won’t. I don’t believe in such strategies. I don’t think we can solve global challenges through instilling guilt in others. Because the result, with us being the talking monkeys running around on a rock in space that we are, is usually desperate attempts to expiate our guilt instead of finding actual solutions. Because that’s easier. And gives us instant, short-term gratification.

And the very real and dangerous problem of global warming is no exception. I don’t think future historians will look back at this era and say, “Thanks to all the shaming in social media, global warming was finally tackled and we all lived happily ever after!” We can’t solve a challenge like this with an army of climate anxiety disorder patients (it exists, Google it). Anxiety makes us only see the problem and remain completely oblivious to the potential solutions. Also, we just strengthen the contempt of global-warming deniers. More anxiety and global-warming deniers is the last thing we need in this battle.

I believe in a strategy where we highlight the people who have dedicated their lives and careers to exploring end deploying actual solutions that can help solve climate change. A strategy through which we inspire each other with positive examples of superheroes and their potential solutions. Instead of virtue-signalling acts that only serve to dampen our own anxiety. With a strategy like this, we can create an army of hopeful and motivated people instead of spreading fear and anxiety.

With a strategy like this, we can empower each other by referring to the superheroes instead of competing with each other on the ladder of virtue. With a strategy like this, we can spread heroism instead of anxiety. Which in turn will lead to the spawning of even more superheroes. Who in time will have a serious shot at actually solving this grand challenge.

One of these superheroes is Boyan Slat. In 2013, at the age of 18, he started The Ocean Cleanup project. The mission was to find a solution that cleans up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Philanthropists, entrepreneurs and various organisations have since funded the project with more than $31m. And now it’s really gaining momentum. It’s estimated that the solution that has been designed by a crew of ingenious engineers will have cleaned up 50% of the garbage patch in only five years. Five years! And by 2040, it’s estimated that up to 90% of the entire garbage patch will have been cleaned away. Crazy numbers. To say the least.

The solution consists of gigantic floating containment booms, with a net “skirt” underneath the water’s surface. The structure travels faster than the rubbish, but slower than the fishes, in order to avoid damaging them. The first version has been dubbed System 001 and was launched last September. Everything went according to plan. It seems like the thing works. Which is amazing. To say the least. Slat and his team are great examples of the superheroes among us. And there are of course many more. Let us be inspired and motivated by them a bit more often.

Team Credits:

Words by Ashkan Fardost

Picture Credits:

#1 Computer rendering of tow-out of the system; photograph by The Ocean Cleanup
#2 Northwestern hawaiian islands; photograph by Matthew Chauvin
#3 Boyan Slat, 2016; photograph by The Ocean Cleanup
#4 Bite marks on a plastic bottle in the ocean; photograph by Kyler Badten
#5 System 001 deployed in the Great Pacific ocean patch, October 2018; photograph by The Ocean Cleanup
#6 Plastic samples collected during mega expedition, 2015; photograph by The Ocean Cleanup
#7 Visual survey data logging by Aerial Expedition crew; photograph by The Ocean Cleanup
#8 Ocean Force One; photograph by The Ocean Cleanup