Blog

07.25.2019

Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with help from space

By: Bruno Sainte-Rose, Lead Computational Modeler, The Ocean Cleanup


Read Time: 5 minutes

Plastic is a material that is utilized in just about everything – packaging, consumer goods, toys, cars, etc.

The trouble is, massive amounts of it end up in the ocean. It does not biodegrade and it contains toxins – breaking up into smaller particles, animals consume the plastic and the toxins then move up the food chain, ultimately to us, humans. But the larger plastic debris pose dangerous risks as well - often ensnaring animals as they swim through the water and, in many cases, causing death. Studies have shown that about 700 species have encountered marine debris, and 92% of these interactions are with plastic. 17% of the species affected by plastic are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Tons of this plastic have accumulated in five ocean accumulation zones, also called gyres, where converging currents create vortexes of persistent plastic. These patches exist across thousands of miles collecting trash. The most notable one is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and San Francisco in the North Pacific.

This is a worldwide problem of huge proportions. So much so that in the last episode of “Blue Planet II”, David Attenborough gave a harrowing speech about the impact plastic is having in marine life. He closed his speech by saying ‘The future of all life now depends on us.’

Indeed, it does.

Big problems require big solutions.

Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2013. Today, Boyan has a team of over 80 people developing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. And we’re now working with Maxar to use its high-resolution satellite imagery to help monitor and improve The Ocean Cleanup’s efforts from space.

Graphic courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup.

Collecting plastic from the ocean using vessels and nets would be costly, time-consuming and damaging to the environment. That is why The Ocean Cleanup is developing a passive cleanup technology, which moves with the currents – just like the plastic itself – to collect it (graphic shows system above). The system consists of a 600-meter-long floater that sits at the surface of the water and a tapered 3-meter-deep skirt attached underneath it. The floater provides buoyancy to the system and prevents plastic from flowing over it, while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath and allows animals to swim away. As the system moves through the water, the plastic continues to collect within the boundaries of the U-shaped system.

The Ocean Cleanup system being towed out of San Francisco Bay on Sept. 8, 2018, as imaged by Maxar’s WorldView-3 satellite.

The Ocean Cleanup launched a beta system, System 001, from San Francisco in September 2018 (image above shows the system leaving under the Golden Gate Bridge). During its deployment, many key features of the technology were confirmed, such as the system’s U-shape configuration, its ability to orient with the wind and follow the waves, plastic accumulation and the system’s electronics for navigational safety, status monitoring, and satellite communication. It was also observed that plastic was not retaining in the system; while adjustments were being tested to solve this, the system experienced a structural malfunction, which required the system and the crew to return to shore. Using the learnings from System 001, a root cause analysis was performed, and design updates were implemented on a revised version of the technology, dubbed System 001/B.

After only four months of design, procurement, and assembly, The Ocean Cleanup returned to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with System 001/B, with which they are now testing modifications that address the two challenges faced with System 001. The aim is to prove the technology with this system, but if that is not achieved, the team will take the learnings from this system and adapt the technology.

Because The Ocean Cleanup develops its technology in fast iteration cycles, this is a natural progression on the road to achieving the right design. System 001/B is smaller and modular, so many updates can be made offshore, speeding up the iterations and helping the team learn at a quicker pace.

WorldView-3 image of The Ocean Cleanup's System 001 in the Pacific Ocean.

Currently, System 001/B is operating about 1,250 nautical miles off the West Coast of the U.S. During its deployment, the system is monitored by offshore teams in a nearby vessel, but it is essential to analyse the system from multiple viewpoints.

That’s where Maxar’s high-resolution satellite constellation come into play.

Maxar images the system almost weekly. The Ocean Cleanup team uses those images to monitor aspects of the system’s performance and to make necessary adjustments. With these images, we can track the direction of the system, how much debris has accumulated within it and, when this is applicable, determine the optimal time to dispatch a vessel for extracting the trash from the system.

The second main objective of this proof of concept is to assess the capability of Maxar’s WorldView-3 short wave infrared (SWIR) sensor to detect plastic accumulation within the system. This sensor is sensitive to the patterns of SWIR light reflected from materials on Earth, so it could inform The Ocean Cleanup team if there is plastic, metal or painted materials in the system. That information can then be used to monitor changes in debris type, plan for recycling and reclamation efforts and study long-term trends in discarded materials. Maxar's high-resolution imagery provides these key insights to The Ocean Cleanup team, allowing an optimal understanding of this new trash-collecting technology, and to reduce the costs of keeping a crew with the system 24/7 in the future.

Maxar is excited to contribute to The Ocean Cleanup’s efforts to rid the oceans of plastic as this effort is closely aligned with our Purpose, For a Better World.

References:

https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Ocean-fact-sheet-package.pdf

https://bigthink.com/robby-berman/where-is-the-plastic-in-the-ocean-coming-from-try-asia

Back to Blog

Email Subscription