December 12, 2019

Technology and Climate Change: The Ocean Cleanup

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05.01.2020, by Karlijn Raaijmakers


Over the past decades, we have seen a range of technology created to make the Earth greener and to help fight climate change, leading various people to ask the question whether technology will be able to save us from climate change. Technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines have been used for quite some time, and are becoming more widespread and financially accessible to the general public. However, with the rate at which technology is developing, we should be able to use technology to save the Earth, right? 

Cleaning up our Oceans

One of the problems of climate change that the Earth and its inhabitants are facing are the great amounts of plastic that often end up in the rivers and eventually the oceans. Not only does this cause lots of pollution, it is also a threat to the marine wildlife and plants. This ‘plastic soup’ originates from various rivers and coastlines in which we dump our plastic, and can currently be found in all of the five oceans because of the water circulation systems in the oceans, also known as ocean gyres.

The North Pacific Ocean is the most polluted ocean, carrying an estimated amount of up to 2 trillion pieces of plastic, and is therefore also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

Ocean Systems 

Thankfully, technology provides a helping hand in cleaning up our oceans. One of the biggest projects that fights the ‘plastic soup’ is The Ocean Cleanup. This project was founded in 2013 by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, who was at the time only 18 years old. By gathering a team of passionate individuals, they created and developed a passive system that would clean up our oceans, starting with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Each of these systems consists of a flexible floater and a 3 meter deep ‘skirt’, which collectively moves with the ocean gyres, just like plastic does. The wind and waves move the system further along, making it move faster than the plastic and collecting it, and the parachute anchor provides steadiness and prevents the system from floating away from the plastic. The system is also created in a way to not harm marine life or ecosystems, which is constantly monitored. 

When the plastic is collected in the system, a vessel helps in removing the plastic from the ocean, which is then recycled by selling it to B2C companies, who use it to create new consumer products. As The Ocean Cleanup is a nonprofit company, the revenue is used to further expand the project itself. With the use of solar powered lights, anti-collision systems, cameras, sensors and satellite antennas, the system can both accurately communicate its performance data, so that the amounts of collected plastic can be analysed and improved, as well as its position with the operators, other systems and boats. 

The Interceptor

In October of 2019, Slat presented an addition to his first project, called the Interceptor. Whereas the ocean systems fight the plastic that is already in the oceans, the Interceptor prevents it from entering the oceans by catching it in the rivers. The Interceptor has a catamaran design, allowing the river’s current and the barrier at the front of the Interceptor to move the plastic onto the conveyor belt that is on the inside of the Interceptor. Thereby, plastic is removed out of the water into a shuttle, which then distributes it into six dumpsters. With the use of sensor data, it is communicated to the operators when the dumpsters are almost full, who then distribute the dumpsters to local waste management facilities, and place them back into the Interceptor after they have been emptied. It is fully powered by solar panels, extracts plastic autonomously and can strategically be placed in most of the world’s polluting rivers. Generally, it collects up to 50,000 kilograms of waste a day, but this can even be doubled in optimal conditions. 

On The Ocean Cleanup website, they state: “The Ocean Cleanup is a project; it is our ultimate goal to reach a 90% reduction of floating ocean plastic by the year 2040.” With the combination of these two systems, the project is already on its way to reach its goal of plastic-free oceans and rivers. 

Is Tech a Double-Edged Sword?

It cannot be ignored that technology, and our digital age in general, can be seen as a double-edged sword when it comes to its influence on our climate. As we find new ways to fight climate change with technology, there come new ways in which we worsen it. Some even argue that data centres will soon have a bigger carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry, because of our digital consumption and electricity use, which means there already is a general need to lessen our digital and electricity consumption. 

This does not mean that there is no reason to further design and develop valuable tech that can help in the fight against climate change, like The Ocean Cleanup is currently doing. However, it is important for creators (as well as people in general) to keep their goals in mind and reduce factors like waste and pollution to a minimum in the creation and development processes. Therefore, the question is not whether technology will save us from climate change, but how it can help us in our fight against it. 

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