Over 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently litter the ocean

Ocean plastic accumulates in five ocean garbage patches, the largest one being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California. To solve it, we not only need to stop more plastic from flowing into the ocean, but also clean up what is already out there. Floating plastics trapped in the patches will keep circulating until they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, becoming harder to clean up and increasingly easier to mistake for food by sealife. If left to circulate, the plastic will impact our ecosystems, health, and economies for decades or even centuries.

Cleaning the ocean garbage patches

The fundamental challenge of cleaning up the ocean garbage patches is that the plastic pollution is highly diluted, spanning millions of square kilometers. Our cleanup solution is designed to first concentrate the plastic, allowing us to effectively collect and remove vast quantities. This is how it works:

CREATING AN ARTIFICIAL COASTLINE

To clean an area of this size, a strategic and energy-efficient solution is required. With a relative speed difference maintained between the cleanup system and the plastic, we create artificial coastlines, where there are none, to concentrate the plastic. The system is comprised of a long U-shaped barrier that guides the plastic into a retention zone at its far end. Through we maintain a with the system.

System 03 catch on deck, September 2023
System 03 catch on deck, September 2023
Close view of System 03 deployed in the GPGP, October 2023
System 03 deployed in the GPGP, October 2023
System 03 drone picture including the vessels.
Aerial view of System 03
System 03 retention zone hauled on deck for emptying, September 2023
System 03 retention zone hauled on deck for emptying

SCALING UP

We captured our first plastic from the GPGP in 2019 and in 2021 we reached proven technology. Today, our total catch runs to hundreds of tons and counting, and as we continuously improve our operations, our catches become larger and more reliable. In 2022, we began transitioning to the three-times larger System 03 by upgrading and replacing components gradually while continuing to harvest plastic. In August 2023, System 03 was deployed to the GPGP for the first time. Cleaning the entire GPGP requires a fleet of cleaning systems, and we believe that System 03 will allow us to develop our blueprint for that scale-up, all while continuing to extract unprecedented amounts of plastic.

A selection of plastic extractions since the start of the cleanup

How it works

Target

The circulating currents in the garbage patch move the plastic around, creating natural ever-shifting hotspots of higher concentration. With the help of computational modeling, we predict where these hotspots are and place the cleanup systems in these areas.

  1. Step 1 Target
  2. Step 2 Capture
  3. Step 3 Extraction
  4. Step 4 Recycling

Expected impact

Our floating systems are designed to capture plastics ranging from small pieces, just millimeters in size, up to large debris, including massive, discarded fishing nets (ghost nets), which can be tens of meters wide.

Modeling predicts we need around 10 full-size systems to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

After fleets of systems are deployed into every ocean gyre, combined with source reduction, The Ocean Cleanup projects to be able to remove 90% of floating ocean plastic by 2040.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2030 with and without cleanup. [scale units : kg/km2] With cleanup
Without cleanup
Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2030 with and without cleanup. [scale: kg/km2]
  • Smart steering

    Active steering and computer modeling enable us to target plastic hotspots -areas of higher concentration- to improve efficiency. Our models will be steadily improved using field data collected during our offshore missions, allowing for continually smarter operations and more focused cleanup.

  • Carbon offsetting

    We aim to offset all carbon emissions related to our operations. We continuously work on technological and operational ways of minimizing emissions, while also conducting a full cost-benefit assessment to determine our net impact on the environment.

  • Scalable

    By taking a careful step-by-step approach, the modular fleet of systems can be gradually scaled up while we learn from the field and improve the technology along the way. The more systems deployed, the faster the cleanup will be.

Track the progress

See where we are cleaning and how much has been removed to date.

The system at sea

MANAGING ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

We aim to rid the oceans of plastic in the most responsible way possible. Our mission is intended to benefit the ocean and its inhabitants, so we place protection of the marine environment and mitigation of any negative impact of our operations at the forefront of our ocean cleaning operations.

Since our operations began, we have conducted continuous research in the laboratory and the field, aiming to optimize our positive impact consistently. System 03, our current ocean cleaning technology, has deterrents, cameras, escape aids, and other features to minimize risk to marine wildlife. We also have trained independent observers on board the vessels each trip to monitor any interactions with protected species (such as turtles or whales) in the area. Monitoring data has confirmed that our operations are having only minimal effects on the environment.

In the gallery below, you can learn more about how we keep marine wildlife safe during our cleaning operations. You can also read more about our environmental protection measures in greater detail in this update.

Overview of the mitigation measures in System 03
Overview of the mitigation measures in System 03
Large mesh sizes incorporated into System 03
The large mesh size allows small marine animals such as plankton to pass through
Escape aids are located in the retention zone
Escape aids are located throughout the Retention Zone of System 03 to allow animals to swim out safely
The Marine Animal Safety Hatch (MASH)
The Marine Animal Safety Hatch (MASH) blocks further entrance into the Retention Zone and opens a hatch on the bottom
Air access points on System 03
Access to air for air-breathing animals is ensured with the breathing hatches and circular float rings
There is an emergency release for trapped animals
The end of the retention zone has an emergency release that would flush out the entire Retention Zone
Green led lights are installed for visual detectability of the system
Green led lights are installed for visual detectability of the system
Acoustic deterrents are installed to safely deter high-frequency hearing animals
Acoustic deterrents are installed to safely deter high-frequency hearing animals
Cameras are used to monitor marine life 24/7
Cameras are used to monitor marine life 24/7

Furthermore, System 03 provides a unique platform for scientific research investigating the sources, fate, and impacts of plastic pollution in the open ocean. The data also helps improve the global understanding of the ecosystem in the GPGP.

We are also committed to offsetting all carbon emissions associated with the System 03 operations. For more about our approach to topics like these, see our Environment page.

SURVIVING STORMS

As the cleanup systems must remain in the GPGP for long periods (sometimes under extremely harsh conditions), it is crucial that our systems can withstand ocean forces. We closely monitor the loads on the system, and we adapt the speed and span during rough seas. We track the latest weather forecasts to plan our route to avoid storms and to identify areas where cleaning conditions are most optimal. In the case of a particularly severe storm, the system can be temporarily withdrawn from operation.

Stormy seas and the ocean cleanup Maersk vessel
The winter season in the North Pacific is often accompanied by stormy seas

From concept to reality

The idea to clean the garbage patches started with Boyan Slat, Founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, in 2012. The technology has come a long way since his first sketch; from a V-shaped array anchored to the seabed, to variations of a free-floating passive system, to our current active cleanup approach.

In 2019 we caught our first plastic. However, the catch amount was low, and our calculations showed it would take too long to clean up the GPGP using that original design. We decided to move to an active cleanup approach, and after some prototyping and field testing, we received proof of technology in 2021. This meant we had successfully met the following criteria: limited negative environmental impact, no safety issues during operation, and of course, repeatedly harvesting large amounts of plastic. Taking on such an ambitious challenge and solving problems nobody has ever solved before requires a fast and iterative approach – so we keep learning and improving every day.

Sketch of the first cleanup system, before The Ocean Cleanup was founded
The first sketch made by Boyan Slat, Founder and CEO in 2012
The Ocean Cleanup's first computer rendering
The first sketch computer rendered in the early days. The Manta Ray.
The Ocean Cleanup concept iteration
An iteration to the anchored concept, with a trash extractor in the middle
The Ocean Cleanup's first cleanup system, deployed in fall 2018
System 001's first deployment in 2018
Crew inspecting plastic in System 001/B.
Crew inspecting plastic in System 001/B (2019)
Catch of System 002 hauled on deck (2022)
Catch of System 002 hauled on deck (2022)
System 03 in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
System 03 in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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  • Maersk vessels with System 002

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  • Crew onboard the support vessel during the System 002 trip 1

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