Marine Plastic Mining?

October 2, 2019 was an important date for the non-profit organization The Ocean Cleanup – and hopefully also for the Pacific Ocean, in the long run.

Founded in 2012 by the young Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, The Ocean Cleanup has been trying to develop a self-contained system that uses the natural forces of the ocean to passively catch and collect plastic debris. After years of research projects and prototypes, the first cleanup system was launched in September 2018. But after four months, it had to be taken back to shore for several improvements.

In the summer of 2019, the new model, called System 001/B was transported from Vancouver into the huge region called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And in the beginning of October, The Ocean Cleanup could confirm that the system was now functioning. In addition to collecting plainly visible pieces of plastic debris and larger ghost nets, it also captures microplastics as small as 1mm – which comprise a large majority of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Recycling of this kind of plastic debris currently does not exist on a commercial basis. But on a research level, there are processes that can break down any plastic waste to a molecular level – and transform it back to new plastics. If these processes can become commercially viable, the cleaning up of the oceans might not only be good for the planet, but for the economy as well.

Gabriel Arthur