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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Oceans of Plastic Trash: A Cleanup Plan

Jun. 8, 2015

A growing volume of plastic waste is killing off ocean life across the world. Fish, sea mammals, seabirds and many other forms of marine life are all threatened. A team of American and Australian researchers estimates that about eight million metric tons of plastic waste ended up in oceans during 2010 alone. Five countries in Asia are the biggest sources of the waste: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

The researchers are calling for a serious international effort to change the way waste is managed, warning that unless things change, the amount of plastic trash in the oceans could rise tenfold during the next decade. As the world searches for solutions, a South Korean photojournalist is trying to increase public awareness - and a young Dutchman has an ambitious cleanup plan.

While photojournalist Park Soo-hyun leads seaside cleanup events on the shores of his native home, on the other side of the world, 20-year-old Boyan Slat claims to have devised a world-first method to clear the waters.

Park has been organizing seaside cleanups since 2002, and he and his colleagues conduct about 10 events each year. “The garbage piles up year after year. If you let it slide even momentarily, it begins to build up again. Frequent collections are extremely important,” he explains.

Government officials in South Korea estimate the nation is responsible for more than 180,000 tons of waste that ends up in the ocean each year. Only half of that gets cleaned up.

Port cities and fishing villages have harbors littered with styrofoam, plastic bottles and plastic bags. Garbage flowing into the sea causes a great deal of environmental damage, particularly in the rainy season. “When the rainy season comes, so much household garbage flows into the sea. It pollutes the ocean, and causes fish to die. It’s terrible,” says a fisherman from Tongyeong in the nation’s south.

The South Korean government has allocated about $300 million to combat ocean pollution over the next four years, and it plans to deploy 19 cleanup vessels. Residents are also being urged not to toss their waste into the sea.

“If you look at where the garbage comes from, 70 percent is dumped by people from land. We have to start working to reduce the amount of garbage on the land through separate collection methods and through recycling policies,” says Korea Marine Environment Management Corporation spokesman Lim Suk-jae.

Park and his team of volunteers can gather about 800 kilograms of garbage from the seabed on a single day. “We recovered all kinds of garbage: tents, plastic bottles,” notes a cleanup participant.

Park says while the government’s efforts are a positive step, more needs to be done to protect the ocean. “We’re showing the recovered garbage to local people. It helps them understand what they throw away pollutes the ocean. And we’ll continue to do this in the future,” he explains.

He hopes his cleanup events will play an educational role in a bid to stop people from dumping their trash in waterways.

As maritime waste reaches critical levels, South Korea, Japan and China are working together on a solution. Officials from the three nations agreed to joint research and cooperation during a meeting in April.

The Netherlands’ environmentalist-entrepreneur Boyan Slat looks set to play a key role in saving the world’s oceans. He wants to rid the oceans of millions of tons of floating plastic and is already making an impact.

“We’ve developed the world’s first feasible method, to clean up almost half of the Great Pacific Garbage patch, which is the swirling concentration of plastic in the ocean, in just 10 years’ time,” says the Ocean Cleanup founder and chief executive officer.

Slat’s work on the problem began during a diving holiday in Greece when he was 16 years old. He saw more garbage bags than fish. After studying the five rotating currents, called gyres, in the world’s oceans, he invented a way to harness their power using floating barriers. The plastic trash moves along the barriers towards a platform where it can easily be retrieved. The booms are anchored to the seabed and because there are no nets, no marine life is trapped.

“People told me that it couldn’t be done, so in a way, that was an extra motivation to try and see if I could come up with a way in which it would be possible,” says Slat.

His project gained attention at the global conference series, TED Talks, and a Youtube clip that went viral with nearly 2 million hits helped to raise more than $2 million in crowd funding over three months. Slat now has a staff and works with volunteer scientists and engineers. He is also the youngest recipient of the United Nations’ top environment award.

His system is set to face its first test next spring at an island off Japan. "Inhabitants of Tsushima Island do their best to keep their coast clean by hand, but this is actually costing them five million dollars each year,” he says. “Because the cleanup array will be placed in front of island, it will intercept part of the debris and costs will likely be saved.”

In the meantime, “our next major project before doing the device near Japan is what we call the ‘Mega Expedition’,” says Slat. “We will be sailing with 50 boats from Hawaii to California, taking more measurements on plastic in three weeks’ time than in the past four years combined. It will be the largest ocean research expedition in history and this should learn ... exactly how much plastic is in the ocean.”

Critics of Ocean Cleanup say the plan is unrealistic, but Slat says the system will work, even if it takes longer than first thought. He maintains it could clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch almost completely - but first he needs an international agreement to install the system, more funding, and government support.