Using Cameras to Discover the Scale of Plastic Pollution

Over the past five decades, the subject of global warming and the effects of human consumption have been discussed in government agendas, academia, and in public forums.

While proving to be a challenging topic, people are inclined to debate from two beliefs: that human consumption patterns have impacted climate change—mainly through the increase of greenhouse gases, or that climate change is natural and not influenced by man’s behavior. This article is based on the belief that human consumption does impact global warming and climate change.

How Fast is the Earth Warming Up?

“According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F) since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20 °C per decade.”

Plot Line graph shows yearly temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2014 as recorded by NASA, NOAA, the Japan Meteorological Agency, and the Met Office Hadley Centre (United Kingdom). Image courtesy of NASA (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/decadaltemp.php)

Plot Line graph shows yearly temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2014 as recorded by NASA, NOAA, the Japan Meteorological Agency, and the Met Office Hadley Centre (United Kingdom). Image courtesy of NASA (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/decadaltemp.php)

While a temperature increase of 1 °C may not be a big deal, one should consider that if the worldwide temperature decreased by 2-5 °C in a single year, there would be an ice age.  Every year, the effect of the rising global temperatures can be seen through the decrease in annual precipitation, the rising of ocean levels, and the increase in the number and severity of natural calamities such as hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes.

As these activities happen, there is a change in the quality of life for humans, in terms of economy, health, and comfort. Additionally, changes in ecosystems can cause plants and animals to become endangered and extinct because they are not able to adapt to the rapidly changing environment.

The Environmental Sustainability Shift

Progress in scientific technology, the volume of raw environmental data, and increases in environmental funding have helped scientists in advancing research to establish what is causing global climate change, and how to find solutions to reduce it. From this study, governments have created public awareness campaigns, formulated stricter environmental laws, incorporated environmental science into school curriculums, and much more.

With the public being made aware of the impacts of their daily decisions on the environment, there has been a rise in activism and the establishment of non-profit organizations, who aim to make the problem widely known, and propose solutions. Based on this, responsibility has been placed on corporations to lower their environmental footprint via a reduction in packaging waste, production emissions, and reducing the excessive use of limited natural resources.

One result from the study of scientists, activists, non-profit agencies, and governments, is a well-informed public, and an emerging discourse on sustainability. There are free public discussions about the condition of the environment, as well as frequent debates on topics such as how to minimize the amount of waste created, how to shop in an eco-friendly manner, and how to lower individual environmental footprints.

While developing a culture of environmental sustainability is great for the prevention of further environmental deterioration and climate change, what many do not think about or have given up on is the notion of cleaning up the physical damages that have already been caused, such as the plastic in the ocean. The prevailing mentality surrounding this has been, ‘what’s done is done, there’s not much we can do about it now.’ That is until 18-year-old Boyan Slat, founded The Ocean Cleanup project.

For society to progress, we should not only move forward but also clean up after ourselves.

Boyan Slat, CEO and Founder of The Ocean Cleanup.

The Ocean Cleanup

With the big idea to bring about a passive cleanup system that uses the ocean’s current to gather up the plastic, Boyan Slat presented a TED talk and founded the world’s most successful Kickstarter campaign. At present, The Ocean Cleanup has a team of more than 70 researchers, engineers, scientists, and computational modelers, who all share the goal of cleaning up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) in just five years.

Boyan Slat with macroplastics at The Ocean Cleanup office. Photo by Yuri van Geenen.

Boyan Slat with macroplastics at The Ocean Cleanup office. Photo by Yuri van Geenen.

Before setting up an advanced engineered system to clean up the plastic in the GPGP, the team first had to understand the scope and size of the patch itself, and get a better understanding of how ocean currents function. To achieve this, the team arranged two expeditions to sweep the GPGP by plane and by boat. In 2015, the mega expedition included 30 vessels sweeping the patch with trowels, and researchers aboard created the first-ever high-resolution map of the GPGP.

Then in 2016, the first-ever aerial mapping of a garbage patch was accomplished, using Teledyne Optech’s CZMIL Nova bathymetric lidar system and ITRES’ hyperspectral SWIR imaging system, SASI-100A. For the first time, scientists were able to see the size, composition, and depth of the GPGP.

Research Results

On March 22, 2018, The Ocean Cleanup published a scientific report, revealing their findings from the past three years of research, including data from two expeditions illuminating the size and scope of the GPGP. The GPGP is situated halfway between California and Hawaii, and is defined as an area with more than 10 kg of plastic/km2. With this description, The Ocean Cleanup has identified the GPGP to be 1.6 million km2, and to contain 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 80,000 metric tons.

This is as much as 16 times larger than what the researchers originally thought and illustrates why The Ocean Cleanup must carry on in their efforts to clean up the ocean beginning with the GPGP. However, even with news that the GPGP is 16 times larger than estimated, there is some bright news: regardless of the GPGP being 3 times the size of continental France, just 8% of the mass is contained in microplastics defined as pieces measuring smaller than 5 mm in size.

We were surprised by the amount of large plastic objects we encountered. We used to think most of the debris consists of small fragments, but this new analysis shines a new light on the scope of the debris.

Dr. Julia Reisser, Chief Scientist of the Expeditions.

Most of the microplastic in the ocean comes from large pieces of plastic that have been broken down in the GPGP by both the ocean currents and the UV rays from the sun. This is good news as the remaining 92% of large plastic is easier to gather and remove from the ocean preventing the formation of more microplastics, which marine life often mistake as food.

The Ocean Cleanup’s Next Steps

In the past three years, The Ocean Cleanup team has learned the GPGP’s scope and size to use as baseline data. In addition to developing the cleanup system itself, prototyping it in regulated circumstances, as well as in the North Sea, guarantees that the system will be able to endure the natural environments of the ocean and deliver the ideal results.

The first GPGP cleanup system is presently being organized in Alameda, the San Francisco Bay Area, California and is scheduled to deploy in July/August 2018.

The Ocean Cleanup aims to start extracting plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the first half of 2018.

This system is completely autonomous, energy neutral, and totally scalable. The Ocean Cleanup team will be notified by an automatic identification system and telemetry when a system is full, and will then launch a vessel to retrieve the plastic from the system. Once the plastic reaches land, it will be processed, recycled, and sold to business-to-consumer companies. Profits made from these sales will be used to finance additional ocean cleanup efforts, with a worldwide scale-up expected by 2020.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Teledyne DALSA.

For more information on this source, please visit Teledyne DALSA.

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