When I was in Grade 4 (way back in 1985) all I wanted was a Cabbage Patch Kid, and big hair (big hair, however, is not relevant to this story). Cabbage Patch Kids came with a birth certificate and a birthmark on their bottom and were, obviously, highly sought after. They were also hugely expensive. Like ridiculously so. At the time I could not understand why my parents were so against them. Now, with three children of my own, I get it. But I must have whinged a lot about it at the time as consolation came in the form of receiving the Flower Kid, a cheaper and, perhaps a replica, of the Cabbage Patch Kid. Solace also came from the brilliant Paul Jennings story about eight-year-old Chris finding a baby in his family’s cabbage patch. It was spectacular in its weirdness. The only thing that could be weirder would be finding a garbage path in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Oh, wait, that actually exists. Its official name is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and it doesn’t come with birth certificate.
In 2010, Boyan Slat, then a Dutch 16-year-old,(he is still Dutch but is now 24 and is, therefore,way too young to remember Cabbage Patch Kids), decided that a floating island of garbage in the ocean — that is the size of Queensland and growing — was not fantastic and he started investigating ways to rid the ocean of this scourge. He started The Ocean Cleanup with 300 euros of his pocket money and, by March 2013, things started to get exciting: his 2012 TEDx video (first link below) was picked up by several news sites and spread to hundreds of thousands of people, leading to the first USD $90,000 injection of funds, (raised via crowdfunding) and the project began in earnest. A volunteer team of close to 100 scientists and engineers spent a year completing the 528-page feasibility study, published on June 3, 2014. That led to more crowdfunding — 38,000 funders from 160 countries contributed over USD $2 million in 100 days — so more work could be done on the prototype and a lot of trial and error.
The past five years have involved a lot of super smart people and a whole lot of testing. Finally, just two weeks ago, on 8 September, the first system (System 001) left San Francisco and is, right now, making its way towards the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located halfway between Hawaii and California. If this works, The Ocean Cleanup is hoping to launch an additional 59 systems over the next two years. The recovered plastic will be bought back to shore, recycled and sold to businesses, who will use the recycled plastic in products to sell to consumers like you and me (it is envisaged that this part of The Ocean Cleanup’s business model will assist in funding The Ocean Cleanup deploying additional systems to more garbage patches (sadly, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only one (if only that had been the case with the Cabbage Patch kids).
Having followed Boyan, and the Ocean CleanUp, since 2015, I feel a little connected to the launch, and I’m both excited and nervous about the next few months. Given I am almost as far removed from the project as one can be, my nervousness levels must be nothing compared to how Boyan and his team must be feeling right now. Their incredible dedication to the cause and the rigorous experimenting and testing that forms the backbone of the launch — 273 scale model tests, six at-sea prototypes, a comprehensive mapping of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with 30 vessels and an airplane, and several technology iterations — is extraordinary. There are certainly risks ahead, (Boyan’s video below documenting the anticipated risks clearly sets out the challenges that lie ahead), but I so hope it works, not just for the Ocean Cleanup team but for the health of our oceans and the future of our world (not to stress anyone out even more but our world desperately needs a clean ocean).
The Ocean Cleanup estimates that, with a full fleet, (60 systems), half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can be removed within the next five years. This is an interesting statistic. Does this mean that in 10 years all the rubbish will be gone or, at least, gone from at least one of the garbage patches? Last year, Boyan and his team flew a plane over the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2017 to see if they could work out exactly how much rubbish lives inside the patches. What they found was scary. As Boyan explains, the rubbish spotters plan was to work just as they do for marine life spotting expeditions — one spots, announces and describes and one records the finding along with the location. However, the team was forced to deviate from this process pretty early on, turning to cameras only because there was too much debris to record. From this aerial survey, (and countless other expeditions from other organisations), we know there is a lot of trash in our oceans and clearing even half of it within five years could be ambitious. What is even scarier than that very sad fact however, is that clearing any of our ocean trash will be impossible if plastic continues leeching into our oceans. As Boyan states: “For 60 years, mankind has been putting plastic into the oceans.” Do we have any guarantee that this pollution is about to stop?
The Story of Stuff, another awesome organisation trying its best to combat our age of plastic, calculates that over 8 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year. They are intent on identifying the origin of the plastic they find. From 10–16 September this year, the organisation ran a global week of action in co-ordination with the #breakfreefromplastic movement, encouraging smaller organisations right down to the individual level to run rubbish “brand audits.” This is where you collect the rubbish and sort it according to brand, like, this afternoon, I collected five Coca-Cola plastic bottles from Lake Burley Griffin. The Story of Stuff wants to know where the plastic has come from because they believe that the companies who produce, use and sell single-use plastic, bear the ultimate responsibility for the waste in our oceans — not the individuals who use the plastic or the countries who don’t have the necessary waste infrastructure in place to stop plastic from entering our waterways.
The brand audit is kind-of like showing off the birth certificate you got when you purchased your Cabbage Patch Kid, assuming you were allowed to purchase one that is. That birth certificate was a really big deal in Grade 4. You had to bring it into school with you when you came in with your Cabbage Patch Kid to prove to everyone it really was yours and not your sister’s. My sister wasn’t allowed one either so I tried to use my real birth certificate for my fake Cabbage Patch Kid, which I stole from Dad’s filing cabinet when, in an angry child moment, I was convinced I was adopted and went searching for it. It didn’t work. The girls in Grade Four saw through my ruse and refused to let me play with them. They were onto something though — if you can work out the origin of the product then maybe you can go right to the source and stop more from appearing.
The Story of Stuff says:
“These multinational corporations are the real litterbugs that need to be held accountable.”
Ultimately, the clearing of our oceans should be seen as a giant puzzle to solve (and not a Cabbage Patch Kid). Setting up Ocean Cleanup systems is a great start (and one that should be paid for by some of the big polluters, not donations from concerned citizens). Citizens cleaning, collecting and documenting plastic is also incredibly useful. As are recycling systems that are properly run and that are, actually, recycling. But these efforts amount to nothing if, at the same time we are diligently emptying, we continue to fill. We’re only going to solve this problem if we stop filling altogether and to do this, we have to reduce, and hopefully eliminate altogether, plastic production. Here is a scary figure: 322 million metric tons of plastic were produced in 2015, and that number is expected to double by 2025! Can we stop that? If we re-think and re-design what we produce and consume — moving away from single use pastics to a circular economy — then, maybe, we have a chance of ridding the world of the garbage patches in our oceans. In some twisted logic, I feel that it seems only fair that if I didn’t get a Cabbage Patch Kid then my kids should not get to experience the Great Pacific Garabage Patch! No-one should.