Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Roya Sabri headshot

Turning Problems Into Profits in the Pacific Garbage Patch

By Roya Sabri
The Ocean Cleanup Pacific Garbage Patch

The Ocean Cleanup has returned with its first plastic catch from the Pacific Ocean. The Dutch nonprofit aims to rid the ocean of 90 percent of its plastic by 2040—partly by targeting ocean garbage patches, or gyres, the largest being the Pacific Garbage Patch located between Hawaii and California. 

The plastic capture happens via a passive system that includes a 2,000-foot cork floater designed to mimic a coastline, along with a skirt extending 10 feet below the surface and a parachute anchor. Winds, waves and currents all help the system move faster than plastic, retain an arched shape to keep the capture inside and remain flexible during storms. 

The first haul of 60 bags, sized 35 cubic feet, included both the massive and the minute, from commercial fishing nets to microplastics one millimeter in size. Once fully scaled, the nonprofit estimates that its fleet of passive collection systems could halve the size of the Pacific Garbage Patch every five years. 

One would think cleaning the ocean would be enough responsibility for a small nonprofit, but The Ocean Cleanup has ambitious plans for its catch. On the heels of completing its first mission to the Pacific, the organization announced plans to create “attractive, sustainable products” from the plastic it collects and use the proceeds to fund future cleanups. 

Product specifications have not been released, but the organization told Fast Company the infrastructure to clean, sort and recycle the plastic is now in the works. 

The impact of collecting and recycling garbage patches

The problem of these garbage patches may seem remote and even irrelevant to daily human life and business, but these growing patches are not so far removed from our daily lives.

Generally speaking, plastic pollution costs the world at least $13 billion a year in lost tourism due to plastic on beaches, impacts to the fishing industry, ecosystem degradation and other damages. The World Economic Forum estimates that two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks have ingested plastic. These plastics, as well as their toxins, can harm and kill wildlife

On a larger scale, the free-roaming accumulation of plastic affects ecosystem services on which global economies rely. Loss of biodiversity threatens the stability of ecosystem services like food provision, water purification and carbon sequestration.

One recent study found a 1 to 5 percent annual reduction of marine ecosystem services due to oceanic plastic pollution in 2011, equivalent to a loss of $500 billion to $2.5 trillion.

Pollution becomes a solution — certified ocean plastic products

The Ocean Cleanup’s first novelty products are slated to come out in September 2020. And they'll have plenty of company in the marketplace, as an increasing number of companies claim to use plastic recovered from the ocean. 

Some of these are legitimate, but others are not—and as of now, there’s no way to tell. Quality assurances provider DNV GL has developed a standard and definition for ocean plastic and will certify all of The Ocean Cleanup's products.

“Welcoming the first catch of plastic on land is the moment we have been looking forward to for years,” Boyan Slat, founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, said in a press statement. “I believe we can use this trash to turn a problem into a solution by transforming this unique material into a beautiful product. As most people will never go to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, through these products, we aim to give everyone the opportunity to take part in the cleanup.”

Meanwhile, the nonprofit is preparing a new design, System 002, for its next phase of plastic collection. 

Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

Read more stories by Roya Sabri